When it comes to protecting our hearts, there is much we can do through diet. We are becoming more aware than ever that it is the type of dietary fat, rather than the total amount of fat, that affects health.

For instance, higher intake of the major saturated fatty acids was associated with a 24 percent increase in coronary heart disease. These commonly consumed major saturated fatty acids were lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid. Each one individually is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Sources of these major saturated fats are found in hard cheese, whole milk, butter, beef and other red meats, processed meats, and tropical oils (palm oil, coconut oil).  

On the flip side, in this study, published in the British Medical Journal (November 2016), Harvard University researchers concluded that replacing just 1 percent of your calories from the combined group of these major saturated fats each day with equivalent calories from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, whole grains, or plant proteins is estimated to reduce risk by 6 to 8 percent.

Fats to Focus On

Whole grain bread is low in overall fat and especially saturated fat and is therefore a smart choice for those wanting to take good care of their hearts. (This should be everyone, right?) It’s also high in fiber so eating whole grain bread is basically a win-win situation.

Here are just a few examples of other fats and foods to focus on while lessening saturated fats in your daily diet.

  • Nuts, avocados, peanut butter (without palm oil), and other nut butters, flax seeds
  • Salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, herring, and sardines
  • Oils to include are: almond, avocado, canola, extra virgin olive oil, hazelnut, flaxseed, and walnut
  • Examples of whole grains include oats, whole wheat bread, and brown rice
  • Fruits and vegetables of all kinds
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)


It’s not just about the fat; it’s the sugar too.

In an effort to decrease saturated fat, many people tend to increase intake of refined carbohydrates. This can also increase heart risk and it is another example of how diet quality matters for heart health, even if you are following a plant-based diet. Instead of replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, such as baked goods and processed snacks, focus on eating whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes.

A 2014 research review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that people who consumed more added sugars had more risk factors for cardiovascular disease no matter what size they were. Eating excessive amounts of sugary foods and beverages has been linked to high triglycerides, high total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and more. What links the sugar to heart disease may have to do with how the excessive sugar causes the liver to make fat, thus resulting in the elevated numbers mentioned.

In 2009 the AHA put into place recommendations for sugar intake to be less than 10 percent of calories, no more than 6 tsp. (25 grams) a day for women and no more than 9 tsps. (38 grams) for men. The average American currently consumes as much as 20 tsps. of added sugar every day with half of these coming from sweetened beverages (soda, energy drinks, iced teas, lemonades, and fruit drinks). Another dominant source of sugar we consume comes from candy, ice cream, and baked treats.


More and more evidence is leading to the overall health benefits of a high quality plant-based diet. And if you are thinking there’s nothing you can do because “it’s in my genes,” that’s not necessarily true. Research is showing that a healthy lifestyle might offset inherited risk for heart disease. So make an effort now to embrace an overall heart-healthy lifestyle. The bottom line: replace total saturated fat with unsaturated fats or whole grain carbohydrate as an effective approach toward the prevention of coronary heart disease. 

Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.