Eating for a Healthy Heart {Part 1: The Skinny on Fat}

{Part 1 in Eating for a Healthy Heart, first mentioned here}

Let’s talk about fat, Mamas!  Who thinks I’m going to tell you not to eat any? …  I hope none of you did!  Fat is essential for good health (for everyone, but especially our little growers)!  Focusing on the types and amounts of fat is a great way to make sure you’re eating for heart health.

Why Do We Need Fat?

Dietary fat (read: fat from foods) is essential for many processes, including:

  • Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K)
  • Adds a feeling of fullness
  • Helps you feel satisfied with your food
  • Healthy skin and hair
  • Aids in development of our little ones’ brains and central nervous systems (fat should never be restricted in the diets of kids under 2 years old, unless specified by their personal pediatrician or RDN)

Heart-Healthy Guidelines

  • Focus on plant-based fats.  Fats from plant sources (think nuts, avocados, and seeds) are are typically more heart-healthy than animal-based fats.  What this means is that plant-based fats tend to be unsaturated, whereas most animal fat sources are saturated fats.  Picture olive oil versus butter: the oil (a plant-based fat) is liquid at room temperature and  the butter (animal-based) is solid at room temperature.  (One caveat to this is the currently trendy coconut oil – it’s very high in saturated fats.  The jury is still out as to whether or not this saturated fat affects the body in the same way as animal-based saturated fats.)  Specifically, many plant fats are high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids.  This is a type of fat which can actually help reduce our LDL (Lousy cholesterol).  Additionally, sources of plant fats don’t include cholesterol (that’s only found in animal products), so it can be a double benefit.  Another type of plant fats, omega-3s (one type, DHA, important for our little ones’ brain development, is found in fatty fish like salmon [and breastmilk]) have anti-inflammatory properties.  Some research has indicated that inflammation may play a major role in heart disease.

    Avocados are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Used with permission by Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

    Avocados are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
    Used with permission by Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

  • Completely eliminate trans-fats.  I, like many RDNs, am not the Food Police, and a majority of us believe that “all foods can fit” (with appropriate portion sizes, of course).  Essentially, you shouldn’t have to totally give up foods that you really like to eat healthfully.  However, my exception would be trans-fats.  These are man-made fats that are created to help improve shelf life (aka: they’re found in a lot of heavily-processed foods.)  Trans-fats are a double-whammy for your cholesterol levels: they raise your lousy (LDL) cholesterol and lower your healthy (HDL) cholesterol.  Not good.  Many food companies have seen the demand for less trans-fats and have removed or reduced them from their products, but (of course there’s a but), they are also sneaky and know loopholes.  Nutrition labels can state that the product contains 0 grams of trans fats as long as there is less than 0.5 grams per serving.  So, how do we know if products contain trans fats?  Check out the ingredient list.  A red flag is “Partially Hydrogenated _______ Oil”.  (It doesn’t matter if it is soybean, cottonseed, canola, etc…)

    Note that the label states 0 grams trans fat, but "Partially Hydrogenated Oil" is prominently displayed in the ingredients.

    Note that the label states 0 grams trans fat, but “Partially Hydrogenated Oil” is prominently displayed in the ingredients.  Photo credit:

  • Watch the saturated fat.  While many dietitians believe in a real-food approach(eg: butter instead of margarine) and recent research has suggested that saturated fat (typically from animal-fat sources – think meat, butter, cream, cheese, whole-fat dairy) does not have a direct relationship to heart disease, we don’t want to go overboard. [A note for those who do choose margarine: Be sure to check the label for nasty trans-fats, as mentioned above) – they especially like to hide in stick margarine.]  Saturated fat can raise all cholesterol levels (the good and the bad).  Also, there has been a strong correlation between the Mediterranean Diet (which is pretty low in saturated fat – check out the placement of meat on the Mediterranean Diet food pyramid below) and a reduced risk of heart disease.

    Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid

    Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid

  • Everything in moderation.  While fat, in general, certainly isn’t bad for you, it is important to prioritize the types of fat you choose and control your portions!  Fats, even healthy ones, have the most calories (read: energy) of any of the macronutrients (aka: food components that give us calories – fat, carbohydrates, protein, and alcohol), at 9 calories per gram.  If we don’t consider our portion sizes of fats, even those from nuts, avocados, and fish, it can cause weight gain, which as we read here, can be a risk factor for heart disease all on its own.

Enjoy your [healthy] fats, and eat them too, Mamas!

How will you incorporate some healthy fats into your family’s diet?

Check out Eating for a Healthy Heart {Part 2: Fun with Fiber}


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