Do I have to give up fat to protect my heart?
No. But you probably do have to cut back on saturated fat, the kind that comes primarily from animal foods. The goal is to reduce your level of LDL or bad cholesterol, which can cause a sticky plaque to build up in your arteries, narrowing and hardening them so that your blood can't flow properly. Talk with your doctor about the right cholesterol goal for you.
One way to do this is to hold the calories you get from all fats to no more than 25 to 35 percent of your total calories for the day. The American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated-fat calories under 7 percent and avoiding trans fats (This includes people who already have heart disease, but not everyone benefits from an extremely low-fat diet. Check with your doctor.) You don't have to give up meat, poultry, and dairy products: Just try to choose lean cuts, remove the skin from chicken, and use low-fat and nonfat milk, cheese, and yogurt. Other fats to avoid include partially hydrogenated oils and tropical oils like palm oil. You'll find them primarily in margarine, cookies, desserts, and crackers, as well as some peanut butters. Check the ingredients list on the label.
Try to get most of your fat calories from poly- and monounsaturated fats. They're actually good for your heart because they can lower your LDL and increase your HDL. Trade in the butter and sour cream for olive oil and guacamole, and you'll be doing your heart a big favor. Also, some fish contain heart-healthy fatty acids called omega-3s. In one study, heart-attack survivors who started eating fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, or sardines once a week cut their relative risk of another heart attack in half.
What else can I do?
Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Many of these foods, especially apples, oat bran, peas, and beans, contain soluble fiber, which prevents cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Soy protein appears to reduce cholesterol, too. Watch your weight, too, particularly if you carry most of it around your middle (that is, if you're apple-shaped). This puts you at higher risk for heart disease than people who are bigger around the hips (or are pear-shaped).
Masley, S.C. Dietary therapy for preventing and treating coronary artery disease. American Family Physician.
American Academy of Family Physicians. Good nutrition can prevent and treat coronary artery disease. American Family Physician.
Cholesterol Levels. AHA Recommendation.
American Heart Association. What Are Healthy Levels of Cholesterol?
Samuel, P. et al. Meta-Analysis Confirms Soy Protein's Cholesterol-Lowering Efficacy. Circulation; 118: S-1122.
American Heart Association. Knowing Your Fats.
Image credit: Udra11/Shutterstock