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Fat: The Good, the Bad and the Heart Healthy

By Dr. Andrew Myers

The issue of fat in our daily diet is a confusing one. The question of what is good and what is bad comes up so frequently that for this February Heart Health month it seemed like a great topic to tackle.

When consumed in excess, fats contribute to weight gain, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Some fats promote our health positively, while others increase our risks of heart disease. The key to avoiding the health risks is to replace bad fats with good fats in your daily diet. Let’s start with the basics. Fat is a part of our diet and many of the foods that we eat. The bad fats we eat come from fast foods, junk foods, processed foods and fried foods. The bad fats include saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and oils (trans-fatty acids).

As our bodies can actually make saturated fats from other types of dietary fats, we don’t really need to eat any saturated fats to be healthy. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Saturated fats promote inflammation and have a damaging effect on our heart and blood vessels, contribute to obesity and increase the risk for certain types of cancer. Any way you look at it, saturated fats and the foods that contain them are bad from a wellness perspective.

The good fats are those that are “vitamin-like” in that our bodies can’t produce them, so we must get them from our diet. These fats are called essential fatty acids and are described as unsaturated (poly and mono) fats. Unsaturated fats are found in fish, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. While most of us get too much saturated fat, too few of us get enough unsaturated fats.

The Heart Health Benefits of Omega-3s

When we talk about healthy fats, we have to focus our attention on the omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats are essential to our health and are especially important in promoting heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the highest concentration in cold-water fish, which is why the diets from around the world that focus predominantly on fresh fish, vegetables and whole grains (for example, the Mediterranean diet) are among the healthiest.

In the 1970s, it was found that the Inuit Eskimos of Greenland had a very low mortality rate from coronary heart disease despite a diet rich in fat. Researchers discovered this was because their diet included a very high intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Since that early research, innumerable studies have demonstrated an inverse relationship between fish consumption and risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 Fact: Populations existing on diets high in omega-3 fatty acids have a lower incidence of heart disease.

The research evidence for the intake of omega-3s is so strong that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 2-4 grams of omega-3 (EPA and DHA) per day for patients with high triglycerides, and at least 1 gram of omega-3 (EPA and DHA) for patients with documented coronary heart disease. Plus, the Association has issued the following statement:

Evidence from prospective secondary prevention studies suggests that taking EPA + DHA ranging from 0.5 to 1.8 grams per day (either as fatty fish or supplements) significantly reduces deaths from heart disease and all causes.

Getting more omega-3 in your diet is very easy. The AHA recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

The best insurance for your heart is to add a daily fish oil supplement to your nutritional routine. I recommend triple strength fish oil delivering 900 mg of EPA and DHA per day from 1,400 mg of fish oil.

This article is for information purposes only and is not intended as health or nutrition advice. For more information, please contact your health care specialist or nutritionist.

Dr. Andrew Myers is an expert in nutrition and preventive medicine and the co-author of Health is Wealth, 10 Power Nutrients that Increase Your Odds of Living to 100. For more information on nutritional deficiency and its impact on your health, please visit


(Circulation. 2002; 106:2747.)

© 2002 American Heart Association, Inc.

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