Thanks to the ever-changing nature of our nutritional landscape, most people don’t fear fat anymore. But there still seems to be a good amount of confusion about what makes a fat healthy, and how much healthy fat should be included in our day to day eating. It can be tough to keep up with the latest nutrition trends, but it seems like healthy fats are here to stay—for now anyways. So let’s start at the beginning.
Everybody needs fat in their diet! Our bodies need fat for energy—fat provides 9 calories per gram (carbohydrates and protein each provide 4 calories per gram) and since unlike protein we are able to store fat, it acts as an energy reserve. Fat cushions and protects our organs, keeps our bodies warm, and supports cell growth. Fats are also important for biological processes, like helping your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and fat is essential for producing important hormones. Some fats such as omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood pressure, and they play a role in fighting against heart disease, dementia, and some cancers. Last but not least, eating healthy fats also helps you feel full and satisfied after a meal.
About 20 to 30 percent of our daily caloric intake should come from fats, and ideally we want to aim for healthy fats—keep in mind that fat from a handful of nuts and fat from a deep-fried cronut are not really the same thing.
Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils are notoriously unhealthy and should be avoided whenever possible. They’ve been linked to heart disease and have been shown to decrease HDL (good) cholesterol while increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Most trans fats started out as liquid vegetable oils, which had hydrogen added to make them more solid and therefore more shelf-stable. Trans fats are most commonly found in commercially prepared and convenience foods
Saturated fats are fats that are typically solid at room temperature, and are most abundant in sources like meat, butter, and cheese. These fats are known to raise blood cholesterol levels and should be consumed in moderation. Although saturated fats have been thought of as unhealthy for a long time, the latest evidence suggests that not all saturated fats are created equal. Those found in coconut oil, for example, are now thought to be heart healthy. This is because about half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids called lauric acid. Lauric acid has several healthful properties attributed to it, including the ability to improve levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Medium-chain fatty acids are also more readily converted to energy than other forms of fatty acid, which means we store less of it.
Monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats, which are typically found in plant-based oils and foods, are known to help reduce blood cholesterol levels, which in turn lowers the risk of heart disease. These heart-healthy fats also slow the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels and reduce inflammation, as well as helping to manage insulin levels.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats include avocados, extra virgin olive oil, peanut butter, peanut oil, canola oil, and many nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and hazelnuts are good sources of healthy fats. Go for a handful of unsalted nuts or a couple of tablespoons of nut butter a few times a week, and be sure to mix it up, as different nuts have different vitamin and mineral profiles that we benefit from. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in vegetable oils such as corn oil and sunflower oil, as well as in fatty fish. Oils rich in polyunsaturated fats also provide antioxidant (and fat soluble) vitamin E to the diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids not only help to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, but they’re also protective against memory loss and dementia. Omega-3’s are also essential for brain development, so they’re an important part of the diet during pregnancy. Walnuts, chia, and flax seeds are good sources of omega-3’s if you don’t eat fish or fish oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are also important for our health. Sprinkle some hemp seeds on your breakfast for a boost of protein and a great source of omega-6’s.
Avocado toast image via Shutterstock.
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