July 13, 2011

Fats that come from plants, not animals, are better for heart health.(ISTOCKPHOTO)Many people with heart disease try to banish fats, but they're missing out on lots of foods that can protect the heart. Avocados, nuts, fish, olive oil—they're all fatty, and they can all help keep you alive.

But other fats act as napalm to the heart. You can't protect your heart by simply counting fat grams, says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. "It's the type of fats that matter."

Fats to avoid

  • Trans fat: An artery-clogging element of partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are found in many fried foods, commercial baked goods, and stick margarine. These fats increase your LDL (bad cholesterol) while lowering your HDL (good cholesterol), weakening your natural defenses against heart disease. Harvard researchers have estimated that banning trans fats from the American diet could prevent some 228,000 heart attacks each year.
  • Saturated fat: While it isn't quite as destructive as trans fat, saturated fat is much more abundant. The saturated fat in meat or dairy products encourage a buildup of plaques in the arteries by increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood. A recent study found that saturated fat also inhibits the anti-inflammatory benefits of HDL (good cholesterol), while fats from fish, grains, and nuts boosted it.

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Heart-healthy fats

  • Unsaturated fats: The types of fats found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, and fish can actually clear LDL while boosting HDL. A study by Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers found that swapping a diet high in carbohydrates for one that's high in unsaturated fats improved the cardiovascular profile of 164 adults over a six-week period. The unsaturated fat diet decreased blood pressure, increased HDL, caused no significant increase in LDL, and lowered triglycerides.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in cold-water fish, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure, and slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Large studies suggest that this fat can lower the risk of heart disease by more than 35% and can reduce the risk of sudden death from heart attack by more than 50%.

The landmark Lyon Diet Heart Study found that heart attack survivors who adopted a Mediterranean-style diet—low in red meat and dairy but rich in olive oil, nuts, fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—lowered their risk of heart attacks, sudden death, and cardiac events by 50% to 70%.