Eating a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat is the first change you can make to lower your risk of heart disease. Besides lowering your total cholesterol, a low-fat diet promotes a longer, healthier life. In contrast, a high-fat diet is linked with obesity, heart disease and cancer. 

Fats are an essential nutrient and your body needs fat to work properly. But, too much fat can increase your blood cholesterol level and your risk of heart disease.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream and fatty meats. They are also found in some vegetable products (coconut, palm and palm kernel oil). Saturated fats and trans fatty acids raise blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (such as butter or stick margarine). Trans fats make these solid.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (such as oils).

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, olive and sesame seed oils. Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce blood cholesterol, if you use them in place of saturated fats.

Trans fats

Trans fatty acids (trans fats) result from a chemical process known as hydrogenation. Trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels and add to heart disease. Shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and hydrogenated vegetable oils are examples of trans fats. Trans fats are often used in cooking in many restaurants and fast food chains.

(Note: Trans fats also occur naturally in some foods such as meat and milk.)

Read ingredient labels. Buy items that have a recommended fat, such as canola or soybean oil. Avoid foods that have hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated oil or shortening. Choose foods that have as close to 0 grams trans fat as possible.

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats include olive, peanut and canola oils. Avocados and most nuts are also high in monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats, in appropriate amounts, may reduce total cholesterol and LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the bad cholesterol.

Diet high in fiber, low in sodium

Eating a diet high in fiber and low in sodium is another way to lower your risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association suggests eating a variety of food fiber sources. Good sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, beans and legumes. There are two types of fiber:

  • soluble fiber. This type of fiber can help lower your blood cholesterol. Foods high in soluble fiber include oat bran, oatmeal, beans, peas, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries and apple pulp.
  • insoluble fiber. This type of fiber cannot help lower your blood cholesterol, but it helps with normal bowel function. Foods high in insoluble fiber include whole wheat breads, wheat cereals, wheat bran, rye, rice, barley, most other grains, cabbage, beets, carrots, brussels sprouts, turnips and cauliflower.

You should eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day. This should come from food, not supplements. Most people only eat half as much fiber as they need.

The average American eats 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium each day. The recommended amount of sodium is 2,300 mg or less each day. If you are trying to cut down on the amount of sodium in your diet, here are a few guidelines:

  • Try herbs and spices that do not contain sodium.
  • Remove the salt shaker from your kitchen table.
  • Reduce or eliminate salt in cooking.
  • Reduce the amount of salt you use to flavor food.
  • Cut back on eating processed foods.

How to cook heart-healthy

You can easily change most recipes to reduce calories, fat and cholesterol. With just a few minor changes in ingredients and preparation, you can change most of your favorite foods into healthy ones.

  • Choose lean (low-fat) cuts of meat.
  • Remove all fat and skin from meats and poultry before cooking.
  • Use cooking methods that use little or no fat: boil, broil, bake, roast, poach, steam, saute, stir-fry with a small amount of recommended oil, or use the microwave.
  • Do not deep-fry foods. Instead, saute meats or vegetables in a small amount of oil, flavored vinegars, low-calorie cooking spray, water or broth.
  • Pan broil foods on a nonstick surface (such as Teflon® or Silverstone®). Remove any fat as it accumulates.
  • Coat cookware with a low-calorie vegetable oil cooking spray. Avoid using shortening or butter.
  • Skim fat off soups and stews before serving. Use an ice cube to congeal and remove fat, or a gravy strainer to separate fat from the juices. Chill soups, stews and gravies after cooking so you can remove the hardened fat from the top.
  • Choose skim or 1 percent milk and nonfat or low-fat yogurt and cheeses.
  • Use herbs, spices or lemon juice to add flavor instead of butter, bacon or salt.

Because butter is rich in both saturated fat and cholesterol, it could raise your cholesterol level.

Most margarine is made from vegetable fat and provides no dietary cholesterol. Select margarines that do not contain trans fats.

Choose trans fat-free margarines or spray margarines such as PAM®, Smart Balance® (spray).

Tips for eating out

  • Ask how foods are prepared and ask about substitutions.
  • Order salad dressings and sauces on the side. Try lemon juice or vinegar instead of salad dressing.
  • At fast food restaurants, order plain foods (such as a regular hamburger) and skip the sauces, cheese and bacon.
  • Consider picking up a made-to-order sandwich at a grocery store deli or sandwich shop.\
  • For dessert, try frozen yogurt, sherbet or fresh fruit.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Take it to Heart: Your Healthy Heart Guide, cvs-ah-92674
First Published: 10/04/2002
Last Reviewed: 01/19/2019