For decades scientists and doctors have blamed dietary fats — especially saturated fat — for heart disease. We’ve been advised to stick to a low-fat, high-carb diet based on grains to keep our hearts healthy.
We now know this advice was based on outdated observational studies. As it turns out, none of the studies truly linked high-fat diets to heart disease, and numerous recent studies have debunked the theory.
In fact, the low-fat, high-carb diet promoted for decades by organizations such as the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, National Institutes of Health, and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have actually played a strong — yet unintended — role in today’s epidemics of obesity, type II diabetes, lipid abnormalities, and metabolic syndromes.
Limit carbs, not fat, for heart health
For most people, it’s carbohydrates, not fats, that are the true cause of heart disease.
Since 2002, low-carb diets have been studied extensively with more than 20 randomized controlled trials. These studies show that limiting your consumption of carbohydrates rather than fats is the surer way to decrease heart disease risk.
An analysis of more than a dozen studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that subjects consuming a low-carb diet had a healthier cardiovascular system and body weight than those on low-fat diets.
The Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study not only found that increasing fat intake was linked to lower risk of heart disease, but as carbohydrate intake is increased, the risk of heart disease grew stronger.
Include plenty of healthy fats in your diet
We need plenty of healthy fats for our bodies and brains to function at their best. Low-fat diets have many risks, including decreased brain function, poor brain health, and hormone imbalances.
Essential to your body’s function, fats:
- Provide a major source of energy
- Aid in absorption of certain minerals
- Help you absorb vitamins A, E, D, and K
- Help reduce inflammation
- Are necessary for building cell membranes
- Help build nerve sheaths
- Are essential for blood clotting and muscle movement
- Help maintain your core body temperature
- Protect your core organs from impact
- Provide the key nutrient for your brain, which consists of nearly 60 percent fat
Four types of fat: Eat three, avoid one
Four types of fat are found in our diet, all with different characteristics and effects. Some are great, some are good, and one is purely horrible.
Saturated fat. Instead of being linked to heart disease, saturated fats actually offer important health benefits:
- Supports brain health
- May reduce risk of stroke
- Raises HDL (your “good”) cholesterol
- Changes the LDL (“bad”) from small, dense particles — dangerous for heart health — to large particle LDL, which does not increase heart disease risk. This has been intensively studied in the past few decades and the studies consistently show these results.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Examples include red meat fat, cooled bacon grease, whole milk, cheese, and coconut oil.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are “essential,” meaning that your body doesn’t produce them on its own and you must get them through your diet.
MUFAs are liquid at room temperature and begin to solidify when refrigerated. They can be found in olive oil, nuts, avocados and whole milk.
Monounsaturated fats can help:
- Prevent depression
- Protect you from heart disease
- Reduce risks for certain kinds of cancer
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Assist with weight loss
- Strengthen bones
Consuming higher levels of MUFAs than saturated fats has a protective effect against metabolic syndrome, a cluster of disorders that increases the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Polyunsaturated fats are also “essential,” meaning your body doesn’t produce them on its own and must get them via dietary intake.
Polyunsaturated fats can help improve blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease the risk of heart disease, and may also help decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats: Omega 3 and Omega 6.
Omega 3 fats are linked with lowered inflammation, better brain function, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, sardines, and herring. Plant sources include ground flaxseed, walnuts, and sunflower seeds.
While we do need some omega 6 fatty acids in our diet, excess consumption is inflammatory and is connected to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, psychiatric issues, and cancer.
To prevent an inflammatory environment, increase your consumption of omega 3 fats and lower consumption of omega 6. Researchers recommend a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 that ranges from 1:1 to 4:1.
Trans fats are the one type of fat to always avoid. A byproduct of a process called hydrogenation that makes healthy oils into solids and prevents them from becoming rancid, trans fat have no health benefits. Their risks include:
- Increased levels of harmful LDL cholesterol in the blood
- Reduced beneficial HDL cholesterol
- Increased inflammation
- Higher risk for insulin resistance (a risk for Type 2 diabetes)
- Trans fats are so risky the FDA issued a ban in 2015 that required they be removed from processed foods within three years.
Six foods to include for healthy fat intake
- Rich in monounsaturated fats (raises good cholesterol while lowering bad)
- High in vitamin E
- High protein for a fruit
- Provides folate
Coconut oil is rich in medium-chain fatty acids which:
- Are not stored as fat by the body as readily as other fats
- Support brain function and memory
- Are easy to digest
Extra virgin olive oil
- Very high levels of monounsaturated fats
- Supports heart health and cognitive function
- Best for low or medium heat cooking (not high heat)
Omega 3 fatty acids
- Found in cold water fish such as salmon and sardines
- Easy to consume via fish oil supplements
Nuts and seeds
- Rich in ALA (alpha lipoic acid) Omega 3 fats for the brain
- Helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
MCT oil (from coconuts)
- Provides medium-chain triglycerides, a healthy form of saturated fat
- Easily digested
Limiting intake of carbohydrates, rather than fats, is a surer way to decrease the risk of heart disease. Many doctors have seen how low-carb diets with plenty of healthy fats help patients lose weight, reverse their diabetes, and improve their cholesterol.
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