Fat, both saturated and unsaturated, is essential for the human body to function properly. Fat supplies calories and essential fatty acids, and helps the body absorb the vitamins in our food. (Olive oil does more than dress your salad!) The dated notion that severely restricting or even eliminating fat in your diet will improve your health is just plain wrong and may, in fact, contribute to obesity and heart disease.
During the fat-free craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s, food manufacturers and consumers took the fat out of their products and diets, and often replaced it with refined carbohydrates; namely, white flour and sugar. Low-fat chips and cookies were the rage, as were low-fat deli meats. The result was an obesity epidemic.
Several trials and observational studies now show that replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates does not appear to lower cardiovascular disease risk, and may actually raise it! Reason being, eating refined carbohydrates causes blood sugar to rise, along with triglycerides, insulin, and other hormones thought to contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
In an article published in Harvard Health Letter, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, suggests that many foods that are low in fat and saturated fat, such as bagels, fat-free desserts, and low-fat processed turkey breast, are more harmful than foods that contain some saturated fat such as nuts and avocados.
Dr. Mozaffarian, who stresses the importance of eating whole or minimally processed foods, says, “If something has a food label, it’s perhaps not the best choice. We need to move away from the idea that we can manufacture an artificially healthy diet.”
So, now that you know fats are in, which sources are best and what are these myths about fats?
Saturated fat increases total cholesterol and LDL, and may boost your type 2 diabetes risk. That said, your body still needs it, albeit in moderation. Meat, seafood, and dairy products are sources of saturated fat. Some plant foods, like coconut oil and avocado, also contain it.
Eating meat, eggs, and low-fat dairy products from grass-fed animals will give you healthy fats in better proportions because they also contain omega-3 fatty acids. (More on that later.)
Unsaturated fats are mostly good (although trans fat is technically an unsaturated fat). The two main types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; their chemical structure is slightly different, as are their health benefits.
Monounsaturated fats raise HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL. Canola oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are good sources.
Trade the ranch dip for hummus or guacamole. Up the ante by using veggies to dip. Unsalted nuts contain monounsaturated fat, but they’re high in calories, so use them in moderation; try sprinkling them on salads instead of snacking straight from the jar. You can also make your own homemade salad dressing using extra virgin olive oil (cold pressed is best).
You can find polyunsaturated fats in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils such as corn and safflower oil, and fatty fish. Polyunsaturated fat features the all-important omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are known as essential fatty acids because our bodies don’t make them — we have to get them from food.
Most Americans get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids from the soybean oil used in processed foods; however, most of us come up short in omega-3s and these rock-star fats fight inflammation, help control blood clotting, and lower blood pressure and triglycerides.
Fatty fish like albacore tuna, wild Alaskan salmon, and sardines are good sources; canned varieties have the same benefits, so you don’t need to break the bank. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least twice a week.
Non-animal sources include walnuts, flaxseed, and dark green veggies such as broccoli, collards, and kale.
While omega-3s are most abundant in fish and nuts, pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, as well as their by-products such as milk, eggs, and butter, contain more omega-3s than their industrial-raised counterparts. I happen to think they taste better too. Something to consider.
Trans fats are found in many processed and fried foods. Trans fats increase total cholesterol and LDL, or bad cholesterol, and lower HDL, the good cholesterol. Translation: Avoid.
Food manufacturers can say a product is trans fat free if it contains less than half a gram per serving. Check a product’s ingredient list. If you see the words hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or shortening, it contains trans fat. (The Food & Drug Administration announced last June that they are giving manufacturers three years to phase out partially hydrogenated oils from their products. Read your labels!)
Things to Remember
Remember to enjoy foods with saturated fats in moderation, eating grass-fed meat (when possible), as well as their eggs and low-fat dairy by-products. Avoid all man-made trans fats (hydrogenated oil). Load up on the dark green veggies; cook with olive oil or use in homemade salad dressing; sprinkle your salad or yogurt with chopped walnuts or ground flaxseed; and aim to eat fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon or albacore tuna, twice a week for a heart-healthy and nutritionally balanced diet.