After a heart attack or heart disease diagnosis, a healthy, low-fat diet is crucial to prevent future illness. But unless your doctor advises otherwise, you don’t need to banish all fat. Your body needs dietary fat for proper brain function, healthy skin and hair, and to absorb vitamins A, D and E.
The American Heart Association and other experts recommend replacing bad fats (saturated and trans) with healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). To do this, ditch solid fats, such as butter, lard, shortening and tropical oils for oils low in saturated fat. Oils that get high marks for heart healthiness include olive, canola, flaxseed, walnut, almond and avocado oil.
The media abounds with articles that praise coconut oil’s health benefits. Some have claimed that this supposed wonder oil boosts metabolism and raises both good and bad cholesterol. Chen Du, a dietitian for Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, says scientific evidence suggests otherwise. No studies show that the type of medium-chain tryglyceride (fatty acids) found in coconut oil have any health benefits. You can use small amounts if you like, she says, as long as you don’t exceed the recommended saturated fat total in your daily diet.
Current guidelines suggest saturated fat should not exceed seven percent of a healthy adult’s daily diet. For heart patients who want to lower their LDL cholesterol, that number should drop to five or six percent. The American Heart Association recommends total fat to stay in the 25 to 35 percent range for all adults. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that equates to 55 to 77 grams of total fat, with 11 to 15 of them as saturated fat, depending on your health needs.
To keep your diet low in bad fats and high in good fats, choose oils with less than four grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. And if you see the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated on the label, “put it back on the shelf,” says Du. Hydrogenated means trans fat, which should be avoided. Trans fat, found in processed foods, fried foods and margarine, raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol — the opposite of what you want.
Here’s the skinny on five common oils and how you can fit them into a hearthealthy diet.
Olive oil comes from — you guessed it — pressed olives. In addition to mostly “good” fats, olive oil contains small amounts of vitamins E and K. It has anti-inflammatory properties and is a Mediterranean diet staple.
Because it’s heat-stable and has a high smoke point, olive oil works well for cooking. Use it to sauté vegetables or with balsamic vinegar for a classic salad dressing. 1 Tbsp: 119 cal, 13.5 g fat (9.8 mono, 1.4 poly, 1.9 saturated)
Corn oil comes from the center of the corn grain. Corn oil contains more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. A diet higher in omega-6 than omega-3 leads to systemic inflammation. But you don’t have to write off corn oil for this reason. Just be sure to balance your diet with omega-3-rich foods such as salmon and flaxseed. Use corn oil for sautéing and low-heat baking. It’s easy to find and inexpensive, which makes it a good choice when you’re on a budget. 1 Tbsp: 119 cal, 13.5 g fat (3.7 mono, 7.4 poly, 1.7 saturated)
Peanut oil has a flavorful aroma that makes it popular for cooking. It contains vitamin E and phytosterols, which benefit heart health. Pure peanut oil has a long shelf life and one of the highest smoke points, which is why it’s popular for stir-frying. Toss a bunch of vegetables, garlic, low-sodium soy sauce, and some lean meat or tofu into a wok and voila! An easy, healthy dinner. 1 Tbsp: 119 cal, 14 g fat (6 mono, 4.3 poly, 2.3 saturated)
Versatile canola oil is a good component of a heart-healthy diet. It’s one of the best cooking oil sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid linked to heart health. Canola oil has gotten some bad press—people argue it’s toxic and leads to a host of diseases. However, no scientific studies exist to back up these claims. The only caveat is most canola oil is genetically engineered. Choose organic if that’s a concern. 1 Tbsp: 124 cal, 14 g fat (8.9 mono, 3.9 poly, 1 saturated)
Whether you use them whole, ground up, or as oil, flaxseeds are a very good omega-3 and ALA source. Although commonly found in health food stores, flaxseed oil is making its way into big supermarkets. Keep flaxseed oil refrigerated and don’t cook with it. It goes rancid when exposed to light, heat and air. Use it for salad dressings or marinades, or take it like a supplement. Talk to your doctor before using flaxseed oil, as it may interact with blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering statins, and other medications. 1 Tbsp: 119 cal, 13.5 g fat (2.7 mono, 8.9 poly, 1.3 saturated)