June 14, 2024

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The Best Fat for Heart Health, According to Dietitians

6 min read

Heart disease claims the lives of one in five people, and is the number one cause of death for adults in the United States. Conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke are types of heart diseases and can be influenced (positively and negatively) by our dietary choices.

The American Heart Association suggests that a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle can be important factors in improving heart health. Including healthy fats, like unsaturated fats, is something that can help lower your risk of heart disease. And since they’re also packed with heart-healthy fiber, avocados are the best fat to eat for heart health.  

The Heart-Health Benefits of Avocados 

Avocados have many health benefits, especially for the always-working heart muscle. Generally, avocados are easy to find and can be fun and versatile to cook with. “Adding avocados to the diet is a simple and easy way to have better heart health,” says Alyssa Smolen, M.S., RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian based in New Jersey. 

Health benefits have been shown from consuming both whole avocados and avocado oil. One study in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that replacing half a serving of saturated fats—like margarine, butter, egg, yogurt, cheese or processed meat—with the equivalent amount of avocado or avocado oil was associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Foods high in saturated fats can increase the risk of heart disease if consumed in excess over time. For optimal heart health, aim to consume no more than five to six percent of daily calories from saturated fat and supplement the rest of your dietary fat intake with sources of unsaturated fats. 

Good Source of Healthy Fats

Unsaturated fats are some of the healthiest types of fats for your heart health. One avocado has about 6 grams of unsaturated fats (1 gram of polyunsaturated and 5 grams of monounsaturated). Uniquely, avocados have saturated and unsaturated fats, but 75 percent of their fats are unsaturated, making them a heart-healthy option. 

“Some research suggests that the unsaturated fats in avocados, specifically oleic acid, can be beneficial when trying to improve endothelial dysfunction, or the blood vessels ability to move blood throughout the body,” says Courtney Vickery, M.S., RD, LD, owner of Vickery Wellness and instructor at the University of Georgia.

The unsaturated fats in avocados give them their creamy texture and flavorsome mouthfeel. These healthy fats are also largely responsible for what makes them so nutrient-rich. 

A long-term study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that higher intakes of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) combined with whole grains were associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease.

Try this heart-friendly combination with our Salsa-Topped Avocado Toast recipe.

Help Lower Cholesterol Levels 

Cholesterol exists in two primary forms: high-density lipoproteins (aka HDL, widelyconsidered “good” cholesterol) and low-density lipoproteins (aka LDL, widely known as “bad” cholesterol). Unsaturated fats, along with fiber, can help improve your “good” cholesterol levels while helping lower “bad” cholesterol levels. 

“Avocados are high in fiber, which is known for helping increase HDL cholesterol. We want HDL levels to increase and LDL levels to decrease in order to prevent cardiovascular disease,” says Vickery. One avocado has roughly 13.5 grams of fiber, making it a considerable asset to heart health.

High-fiber foods like avocado grab onto cholesterol in the small intestine, and the soluble fiber they contain takes it to be excreted with the rest of the body’s waste instead of leaving it in the body to be absorbed. 

Another asset avocados provide is their high amount of antioxidants. “Antioxidants reduce LDL oxidation,” explains Sarah Alsing, M.S., RD, owner of Delightfully Fueled. “A study from The Journal of Nutrition found that eating one avocado per day as part of a heart-healthy diet decreased LDL levels in overweight adults and those with obesity.”

Help Lower Blood Pressure

Not only can fiber help with cholesterol, but dietitian Sandra Chavez, M.S., RD, shares, “studies are mixed on the effects of avocados lowering blood pressure. However, their high fiber content can be one clue to their blood pressure benefits. Higher-fiber diets have more nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels, or wider vessels, allowing blood to flow freely without as much resistance or pressure.”

A well known blood pressure-lowering diet called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet even recommends eating avocado to improve blood pressure readings. 

Potassium is a mineral and an electrolyte that can help lower blood pressure. While bananas usually are the first to come to mind, one cup of avocado provides 1,120 milligrams of potassium, which is more than one cup of raw mashed banana, which has 805 milligrams. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the average daily sodium intake for adults is 3,400 milligrams. This is far above the recommended daily maximum intake of 2,300 milligrams for healthy individuals and 1,500 milligrams for those with heart-health concerns.

“Avocados are rich in potassium, which helps blood vessel walls relax, lowering blood pressure,” Alsing says. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating five servings of avocado per week was associated with a 17 percent decreased rate of hypertension in women.

Limiting overall sodium intake is another way to help lower blood pressure. 

May Decrease Inflammation and Triglycerides 

The healthy fats inside avocados can also help decrease inflammation. “Most of the standard American diet (SAD) is full of inflammatory types of fats, but avocados contain more anti-inflammatory fats and omega-3 fatty acids,” says Smolen. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are an outstanding way to reduce inflammation and may help improve high triglyceride levels. One study found that omega-3s effectively reduced triglyceride levels in people with elevated levels.

Chronic inflammation can be a precursor to heart disease. One lab value that your doctor can check is C-reactive protein (CRP). If elevated, it can indicate possible future heart-related issues. Consuming foods high in saturated fats and added sugars can increase inflammation in the body over time. 

Instead, opting for healthier fats (like avocados), fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help decrease inflammation and the risk of heart disease.

Other Heart-Healthy Fats 

While avocados boast some unique heart-health benefits, they aren’t the only type of fat that can help out your ticker. Here are other foods that can be great fits for a heart-healthy eating pattern:

  • Walnuts: Walnuts are a fantastic nut to eat to improve heart health. Similar to avocados, they are packed with unsaturated fats and omega-3s.
  • Olive oil: Olive oil is easy to add to cooking or making a dressing. It contains monounsaturated fats and antioxidants that are good for heart health. 
  • Flaxseeds: Ground flaxseeds, like avocados, contain omega-3s to help lower inflammation and help reduce heart disease risks. 
  • Pistachios: Around 90 percent of the fats of pistachios are unsaturated, which makes them heart-healthy nuts. They also have 3 grams of fiber per serving to help lower cholesterol levels.

There are a variety of heart-healthy foods rich in unsaturated fats, so this is a non-exhaustive list. But nuts, seeds and plant-based oils are a great place to start when trying to up the heart-healthy fats in your eating pattern. 

The Bottom Line

While creamy and delicious, avocados offer more than just a pleasant taste. Incorporating avocados more often can help increase the amount of healthy unsaturated fats, fiber and beneficial vitamins and minerals to keep our heart functioning at its best. 

However, it’s important to remember that eating one health-promoting food isn’t a magic bullet, and having a well-balanced eating pattern and lifestyle gives the best results.

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