Cholesterol and Fats for Heart Health

The science of nutrition and dietary advice is vast and often confusing for many. Part of Northern Heart’s mission is to help educate individuals on heart health and surrounding topics related to the heart, such as nutrition. Two confusing concepts noted in the area of nutrition-related questions come from, “what is cholesterol?” and “why are some fats good and some bad?”.

Cholesterol is in charge of circulating the blood throughout the body. But, too much cholesterol in your blood can pose a risk to your health by contributing to a higher chance of cardiovascular disease and stroke, so it is important to get these levels regularly checked by your physician.

There are two types of cholesterol. There is good cholesterol (High-Density Lipoprotein – HDL) and bad cholesterol (Low-Density Lipoprotein -LDL). The low-density, or the bad kind of cholesterol, is very fatty and can cause a plaque build up in your arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The high-density, or good kind of cholesterol, carries the bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it can be broken down.

Examples of HDL foods to include in your menu include olive oil, beans, whole grains, salmon, nuts, and avocado. Some examples of LDL foods to perhaps limit from your menu include fatty beef, pork, lard, coconut oil, whole dairy products, and poultry with the skin.

Now on to fats! There are four types of fat that you can get from foods. There are two types of bad fats called saturated fats and trans fats. One way to picture these fats is that they are often solid at room temperatures, like a stick of butter or bacon grease. Therefore, can pose risks of plaque build up in your arteries and weight gain due to most saturated fats being high in calories.  In contrast, good fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats and are often liquid at room temperature, like olive oil. These are considered good fats by lowering blood pressure, risk of heart disease, and prevent abnormal heart rhymes.

Other examples of good fats include low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, beans, and nuts. Notice how these examples are similar to those of the good cholesterol group as well! Some examples of bad fats include beef, poultry skin, cheese, butter, and lard.

A healthy diet consists of all foods that you love. Avoiding treats can actually do more harm than good by leading to binge eating or establishing a negative relationship with food. A general rule from the American Heart Association (2021) recommends eating a diet pattern that emphasizes the good fats and cholesterol with plenty of vegetables and limiting your intake of the bad fats and cholesterol.

Refer to the Canada Food Guide for information on creating a healthy menu.