What are heart-healthy fats?

If you want to eat a heart-healthy diet, watch unhealthy fat and cholesterol. Limiting the amount of saturated and trans fats you eat can help you lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. Choose healthy fats like those found in olive oil, canola oil and trans fat-free margarine instead of the ones in butter, creamy sauces, hydrogenated margarine and shortening. Look for monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, like the ones found in healthy oils, nuts, seeds, soy (tofu) and seafood.
When it comes to heart health, monounsaturated fat is the best fat. It helps lower your total and unhealthy low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and boosts healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. In a Canadian study, volunteers who replaced 13 percent of carbohydrates with monounsaturated fat lowered their LDL cholesterol by 35 percent and improved their HDL cholesterol by 12.5 percent in just 4 weeks. Smart sources of monounsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil, nuts and nut oils, avocados, and sesame oil.
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
One of the biggest dietary developments since the 1990s has been the understanding that not all fats are bad. Some fats are better than others -- and some are actually good for you and your heart.

Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fat, derived primarily from animal products, clogs arteries and raises the risk for coronary artery disease. Even worse are trans fats, which pack a double whammy by raising harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and lowering protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fats can be found in foods made with partially hydrogenated oils, such as solid stick margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other prepared foods. Fast-food restaurants may also fry their foods in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that trans fats be listed in the "Nutrition Facts" label on food packages. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your trans fat intake to less than 1% of your total calories.

Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats (found in olive and canola oils, nuts, and avocados, for example) and polyunsaturated fats (found in fatty fish, corn, soybean, safflower, and cottonseed oils) actually protect your health by improving your cholesterol profile. Based on data from more than 80,000 women enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, researchers estimated that replacing 5% of calories from saturated fat with unsaturated fats would reduce the risk of heart disease by 42%, and replacing just 2% of calories from trans fats with unsaturated fats would reduce risk by 53%.

Include fish, omega-3 fats, and fish oil supplements. Omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish, nuts, and other foods, are particularly heart-healthy. The main omega-3 fats in fish are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Studies show that fish and omega-3 fats reduce the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and sudden cardiac death. Omega-3s also decrease triglyceride levels.

The AHA recommends eating fish, especially oily fish, at least twice per week. Men and women with heart disease are advised to consume about 1 gram of EPA and DHA per day through a variety of high-omega-3 seafood or by taking fish oil supplements.
Mary A. McLaughlin, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Mono and poly unsaturated fats come from various food and oils, often plant based. These fats, such as omega 3 fatty acids, do not raise cholesterol. Examples of 'heart- healthy fats' are olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, vegetable oil, and cold-water fish. You should try to limit your intake of saturated and Trans fats (found in animal sources of food) since these fats raise cholesterol. Examples of saturated and Trans fats are cheese, butter, meat, prepared desserts and snack foods.
Not all fats are bad for your heart and arteries. Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil, nuts, fatty fish, and flaxseed, may be beneficial to your heart when consumed in moderation. In fact, choosing these healthier types of fat may be more important than restricting the amount of fat you consume each day.

A Mediterranean-style diet is a way of eating that provides moderate levels of monounsaturated fat mainly from olive oil. This diet is also low in saturated fat and includes fish as well as many fruits and vegetables. Eating this way has been shown to have a protective effect on the heart.

Polyunsaturated fats are also important for heart health. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat found mainly in fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring) and some plant sources, such as flaxseed. Omega 3 fatty acids may help prevent heart rhythm problems in certain people, which may reduce the risk of sudden death. They may also help decrease triglycerides (another type of fat circulating in the blood), reduce blood pressure slightly, and reduce blood clotting.

Try these tips to replace unhealthy saturated fat with healthier mono- and poly-unsaturated fats:
  • Use only liquid oils such as olive oil and canola oil for baking and cooking needs.
  • Each week eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring).
  • Eat a one-ounce serving of nuts at least 4 times per week to replace snacks high in saturated and trans fat. 
  • Add a teaspoon or two of freshly ground flaxseed to recipes for baked goods, yogurt or homemade fruit smoothies to boost omega 3 fatty acid intake.
  • Consider asking your doctor if you should take fish oil supplements or omega 3 fatty acid supplements.
Emilia Klapp
Nutrition & Dietetics
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are classified as healthy fats because they don’t get stuck in the arteries. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL, the “bad” cholesterol; some may raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Unlike saturated fat, they are not converted into cholesterol.

Good sources of monounsaturated fat are olive oil, canola oil, and nuts. Polyunsaturated fats are favorite targets of free radicals, which cause cell damage. They also lower LDL cholesterol but also lower HDL cholesterol, so use them in moderation. Good sources of polyunsaturated fats are corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil.

Continue Learning about Good Fats

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.