Sylvia Meo, R.D.
Heart Healthy Fats, Because Not All Fats Are Created the Same!
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, yet 80% of premature heart disease can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes. One of the best ways we have to stay healthy and prevent diseases is through developing and maintaining healthy eating habits. Most of us know we need to add more fruits and vegetables to our diet, eat fiber-rich whole grains more often, opt for leaner cuts of meats to keep our heart happy, but what about adding more good fats to our daily menu in order to improve our heart and overall health? Unfortunately, fats are still quite misunderstood and get a bad rap, in fact many of us still suffer from fat phobia probably due to the past low-fat craze era. In truth, not all fats are created the same and certain fats are incredibly beneficial and essential to our overall health and wellness.
The Many Roles of Fat
Eating foods that contain fats is definitely a cornerstone of having a healthy diet. Fats provide our body with energy, as do carbohydrates and proteins, but also help it function optimally because they make up the membranes of each cell in our body and support cell growth, they insulate our body and regulate our core body temperature, they protect our vital organs, they help carry and absorb important fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and make up about 60% of our brain’s composition!
The Good, the Bad and the Evil
Some of the unhealthiest fats are the artificial trans fats that we would typically find in commercially baked goods (pastries, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, etc.), some packaged foods (chips, crackers, cereal bars, microwavable popcorn, etc.), fried fast foods (battered fish, fried chicken, fries, etc.), most conventional nut or seed butters or any product that is made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (shortening, margarine, regular peanut butter, etc.). These fats have been banned by Health Canada because they are considered dangerous and harmful. They raise the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower the “good” cholesterol (HDL), and have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and other chronic health conditions. Luckily, as of September 2020 they should no longer be part of our food supply.
Red meat, poultry skin, lard, whole fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cream, cheese, ice cream and butter, as well as tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil are what we call saturated fats, or the “bad” fats, not as harmful as their artificial trans cousins, but consuming too much of them can definitely have a negative impact on our heart health.
Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, vegetable oils and fish are all foods rich in healthful unsaturated fats, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, and are better known as the “good” fats. They have the opposite effect on our body than trans and saturated fats. They can help us lower our risk of heart disease and stroke, lower our LDL cholesterol levels, increase our HDL cholesterol, lower our triglycerides levels, lower our blood pressure, ease and prevent inflammation, prevent the hardening and narrowing of our arteries, etc. Some of these fats, the polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats, are also essential to our body because it can’t produce them on its own so they must come from food. Without going into too many details or trying to complicate this already complicated fat story, there is an ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats that our diets should respect which ranges from 1:1 to 1:3. Unfortunately, our typical North American diets are not lacking in omega-6 fats, but are quite low in omega-3 fats and although they are essential, high levels of omega-6 fats in our diets can cause inflammation and also contribute to cardiovascular disease. For this reason, I will focus this post on the importance of omega-3 fats and getting more omega-3 rich foods into your diet!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There exist eleven types of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, of which three are considered essential: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). When a nutrient is considered essential it means we must get it from food; EPA and DHA varieties are mostly found in animal foods, particularly fatty fish which explains why we call them marine fats, and ALA fats come mainly from plant-based foods.
Most of us are not lacking ALA fats in our diets, but in order for our body to be able to use ALA fats other than as a source of fuel or energy they need to be converted into EPA and DHA. In the human body this conversion is limited and affected by various factors, one of which being a high intake of omega-6 fats. Throughout the years EPA and DHA fats have been the most studied and linked to many proven heart health benefits and functions.
Here are some of the richest sources of omega-3 fats out there and easy, Foodful ways to boost your intake. Incorporate a variety of these into your diet, aiming for at least two per day.
EPA and DHA Omega-3 Fats
The best sources of EPA and DHA omega-3 fats will always be fish and seafood. Cold water wild varieties of fish contain the highest amounts. Here is a quick list of some of the fish and seafood with the highest amount of omega-3 fats per 3 ounces or 100 g serving (shown in decreasing order):
White fish like sole, cod, Pollock and haddock contain low levels of omega-3 fats. Aim for at least two servings (3-4 ounces) of omega-3 rich fish per week.
If for any reason you don’t like or want to eat fish, mineral and antioxidant-rich seaweed and algae are the next best thing. Sadly, they are often overlooked as a source of these amazing fats, however they are the ONLY plant-based foods that contain EPA and DHA omega-3s. Nowadays we can find nori seaweed snacks in all grocery stores, and seaweed salad is also another popular item on supermarket shelves. Both of which are super easy to incorporate into your meals or snacks, but dried seaweed in general is so versatile and can also easily be included into your diet. I mix some into my soups, crush some into my bread mixture when I make breaded fish, and stir some into a salad dressing to add an extra salty or umami flavor to my salads! For sweeter recipes, I like to add spirulina or chlorella powder to my smoothies, oat or chia puddings, and energy ball recipes. If you follow me, you must’ve seen my dark green smoothies on my social media channels, these green colored algae are what give my smoothies that distinctive color!
Finally, although eating whole foods like the ones mentioned above is the best way to get your omega-3 fats, if fish and seaweed are simply not your thing, or you don’t eat them often enough, you may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Here are my Foodful recommendations for choosing the right one for you:
Make sure they’re made with sustainable fish like sardines, mackerel, anchovy, herring.
Look for a third party tested purity stamp: purified fish oils have been rid of contaminants such as PCBs.
Confirm potency: if the front label says 1500 mg of fish oil per capsule it doesn’t mean there is 1500 mg of EPA and DHA. Look at the back of the bottle to see how much each capsule contains of EPA and DHA fats. You want one that supplies around 1000 mg total of EPA + DHA per capsule.
For vegans: omega-3 supplements made with flax, chia or hemp oils contain only contain ALA fats and possibly omega-6 fats which are naturally present in these oils. Instead look for a supplement made with seaweed or algae oils to get your daily dose of EPA and DHA fats.
If you take fish oil capsules, open one up occasionally and smell the oil to make sure it hasn’t gone rancid.
Don’t like the fishy aftertaste of fish oil capsules, store them in the freezer and take them when they’re frozen.
For superior absorption, look for an omega-3 fish oil supplement in the form of triglycerides.
ALA Omega-3 Fats
ALA omega-3 fats are found in various plant-based foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds and their oils, edamame, soy products, omega-3 fortified eggs and grass-fed beef. Below I focus on foods that represent substantial sources of ALA omega-3 fats.
Walnuts are the only nuts that supply a rich source of omega-3 ALA fats. They are also a great source of fiber, magnesium and vitamin E, all of which also help lower our risk of heart disease. We can enjoy these on their own, chop them up and add them to a salad, yogurt bowl, hot or cold cereals, in homemade granola or trail mix, in your favorite baked goods recipes but they are also amazing to add some texture to a pasta or other whole grain dish, to encrust your fish, to replace pine nuts in any pesto recipe, and why not try a walnut butter on your toast in the morning instead of peanut butter!
Seeds are another great way to add these heart healthy fats to our every day and some of the richest sources are flax (ground or milled), chia, hemp and camelina seeds, and of course their respective oils as well. You can add all of these seeds to your smoothies, hot or cold cereals, baked goods recipes, sprinkle some on your yogurt and salads, you can make easy and nutritious homemade jams with chia seeds, or use ground chia or flax seeds to make a vegan egg substitute, the possibilities are quite endless.
If you are not a fan of eating seeds, you can get these omega 3 fats from flax, hemp or camelina oils, but you are missing out on all the other incredible nutrients these healthful seeds offer.
N.B.: Health Canada recommends 1.1 to 1.6 g of ALA and about 300 to 450 mg of EPA or DHA per day.
For more heart healthy tips, click on the links below:
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