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.