For years the medical community has told people to decrease their fat intake to prevent heart disease and memory loss, but there have been four big problems with this approach.

First, it is hard to do. I spent years telling people to lower their fat intake, yet 95% of my own patients couldn’t do it. They weren’t satisfied, they developed cravings, and they couldn’t stick with this kind of eating.

Second, your brain is more than 60% fat by weight, and about 40% of it is made of omega-3 fats—you need fat to nourish your brain. The latest studies have shown that adding more fat to your diet improves cognitive function and slows memory loss.

Third, I believe the benefits from low-fat diets (like Pritikin, Esselstyn, and Ornish) have little to do with eating low-fat.  They do get rid of some bad fat, which is good, but the real reason these eating plans are better than the SAD Standard American Diet is when they’re done right, they’re packed with fiber and they’re high in plant-based nutrients.

Fourth, although low-fat diets do some things right, like getting rid of bad fats, they also get rid of smart fats – and that is actually pretty dumb. Smart fats have two BIG amazing benefits: they decrease inflammation and they improve hormone levels, in particular blood sugar and insulin. So when we cut out the Smart Fats, we become more inflamed and lose healthy hormone balance. And since the leading causes for heart disease are high blood sugar levels and inflammation, cutting out smart fats increases the risk for arterial plaque growth.

This does not mean eating more of any fat is good, (such as ice cream, sausage, and French fries) but adding more smart fat is good (such as olive oil, avocado, and nuts).

Which Fats Are Smart for My Heart & Brain?

Smart fats have proven clinical benefits from published studies. For example, studies have shown that consuming more olive oil and nuts decreases the risk for cardiovascular disease. Hundreds of other studies suggest nuts and olive oil are good for your heart and help to slow overall aging, and the recent Mediterranean Diet study showed that consuming more extra virgin olive oil and nuts prevented cognitive decline. Wild salmon and sources of fish oil have proven heart benefits, plus they decrease inflammation and they are good for our brain. Dark chocolate, another smart fat, has been shown to have many benefits for blood pressure, overall cardiovascular health, and is also good for the brain. Monounsaturated food sources, like avocado, have been shown to improve both our cholesterol profile and help with insulin resistance.

So, nuts and nut oils, olive oil, cold water fish, dark chocolate, and avocado are clearly good for your heart and health, and can easily be called smart fats. Smart nuts with proven benefits include: almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, and macadamias.

What is a Bad Fat?

There are obvious examples of bad fats, such as partially hydrogenated fats (also called trans-fats) that worsen cholesterol profiles, blood sugar control, and increase cancer risk. Hydrogenated fats are used by the food industry to extend the shelf life of food, but they shorten your life if you eat them.

Another example of bad fats are fats loaded with pesticides and hormones. Feedlots too often feed cows, pigs, and poultry pesticide-packed grains whose chemicals accumulate in the fat. When we eat the animal fat, we may get a big load of toxic fat. Feedlots may also load animals with growth hormones, and these hormones likely increase your risk for cancer.

So, to avoid bad fats, become a savvy shopper – read labels, and if you purchase meat and dairy, buy them from pasture raised, hormone-free, and grass-fed animals.

Is Coconut Oil Good or Bad?

Consuming coconut oil:

  • Boosts metabolism (calorie burning) in highly active people.
  • Provides a terrific fuel source (medium chain triglycerides) for prolonged exercise sessions and for athletes.
  • Has anti-microbial properties, helping to fight infections.
  • For people with mild cognitive dysfunction, it appears beneficial for memory, and for people with a neurological disease, the MCT portion of coconut oil helps injured brain cells function.

Despite these benefits, there is still controversy with coconut oil because eating more coconut products increases cholesterol levels. It raises LDL particle size (considered good) and healthy HDL cholesterol levels (also good). The problem is we do not have any clinical outcome studies that show eating coconut is either neutral or beneficial, and at least one clinical study using coconut products showed that it decreased artery function, so there should be some hesitation in recommending coconut oil to people with established heart disease.

My recommendation is if you are in good health, or if you have neurological issues, then it’s likely smart to eat more coconut fats. However, if you have established heart disease or you are being treated by your doctor for abnormal cholesterol problems, I’d recommend that you consult with your doctor and avoid coconut fats and enjoy the many other heart-friendly smart such as avocado, macadamia nut, or almond oil, or extra virgin olive oil instead.

Also, don’t be fooled about the myth regarding cooking with coconut oil at high heat. In reality, coconut oil has a low smoke point, only 350 degrees (F). So only use coconut oil at low or medium-low cooking heat, not higher.

Bottom Line

There are smart fats that benefit your heart and brain and the latest scientific evidence shows that you do not need to follow a low-fat diet. Clearly some fats should be avoided, yet you should enjoy eating more nuts, nut oils, olive oil, cold water fatty fish, dark chocolate, and avocados. So, Bon Appétit!

I hope this helps you to make the best choices for your health.

Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS