Given all the often-conflicting information out there these days regarding the issue of “good” fats versus “bad” fats, it’s not surprising that some people in search of a healthy diet may believe that avoiding all dietary fats is the way to go. However, certain fats are actually an important part of a healthy diet, providing essential fatty acids—which the body cannot create from other nutrients—to help keep our systems working properly. Dietary fats enable our bodies to absorb the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and also serve as a concentrated source of energy.
Fats have other benefits as well, contributing much of the flavor in our foods and creating that appealing, creamy taste sensation so many of us enjoy. They also help us feel full and satisfied after a meal, insulate our bodies, and keep our skin and hair healthy—and are even essential for proper blood clotting, in case of injury.
So fats do have an important place in a healthy diet. Therefore, rather than eliminating all dietary fats, we should focus on limiting or avoiding consumption of unhealthy fats, instead opting for healthy fats in moderation when planning meals or eating out. Consuming too many fats, however—even healthy ones—can have a negative impact on health. Excess dietary fat contributes to obesity, which in turn can raise our risk of developing chronic problems like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancers such as colon cancer and postmenopausal breast cancer.
Which Fats are Considered Unhealthy?
In short, we should limit the amount of saturated fats we consume, and avoid trans fats altogether.
Saturated fats are unhealthy—especially for the heart—because they increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” HDL cholesterol in the blood. High LDL levels and low HDL levels increase the risk for heart attack and stroke, and also raise the level of inflammation in our bodies, a condition that underlies many chronic health problems. Most saturated fats come from animal-derived foods such as butter, cheese, lard, whole milk, ice cream and fatty meats. Saturated fats can also come from some plant sources, however, such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6 percent of total calories for the day. For example, if you consume 2,000 calories daily, you should limit saturated fat to less than 13 grams per day.
The least healthy fats are the trans fats, which are formed during a process known as hydrogenation, in which liquid oils are chemically altered to make them solid at room temperature. Found in many processed foods made with hydrogenated oils, including baked goods, fried foods and stick margarine, trans fats can raise LDL levels, lower HDL levels and increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Due to these negative health impacts, the American Heart Association recommends keeping trans fat intake as low as possible. It’s important to note, however, that for marketing purposes a food product can be labeled as having “zero trans fat” if it contains less than 1 gram per serving. But don’t be misled! People often eat more than the recommended serving size of their favorite processed foods. So by eating a product that has a half-gram of trans fat per serving—and can thus be marketed as having “zero trans fat”—you could easily be consuming 1-2 grams of trans fat every time you eat that product. To check for trans fat content, be careful not to rely on the marketing on the front of the package. Instead, check the nutrition label on the back. If hydrogenated oil is listed in the ingredients, the product contains trans fat.
Which Fats are Healthy?
Healthy fats are the unsaturated fats, which come in two varieties: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, avocados, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils (safflower, corn, soybean and safflower). Consuming these fats can lower LDL, which in turn lowers our risk for heart disease and stroke.
Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish, walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. These healthy fatty acids can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure and triglycerides, and play an important role in brain function.
The American Heart Association states that replacing saturated and trans fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can benefit heart health by improving blood cholesterol levels. Here are some options for making healthier choices along those lines:
How Much Fat Do We Need?
About 25-35 percent of our daily calorie intake should come from fats, so someone consuming 2,000 calories per day should consume 500-700 calories from fat, or about 55-77 grams of fat per day.
“What About Coconut Oil?”
Coconut oil has become popular in recent years, thanks to unproven claims that it speeds metabolism, promotes weight loss, cures Alzheimer’s disease, improves brain function and improves heart health. Unfortunately, there have been no well-designed, peer-reviewed scientific studies to support these claims. One of the reasons coconut oil may be perceived as healthy is that it contains MCT oil, which is absorbed and metabolized differently than other animal fats. Studies done on 100 percent MCT oil have in fact shown some health benefits, but coconut oil contains only about 13 percent MCT oil.
One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat—nearly the entire daily allowance of saturated fat recommended by the American Heart Association—so coconut oil is, in reality, not a heart-healthy choice. If you enjoy the wonderful flavor coconut oil adds to your cooking, be sure to use it only occasionally for some recipes, and certainly not every day. Coconut oil does make a wonderful moisturizer, so using it on the skin is a healthy option.
Super Simple Soy Maple Salmon
Here’s one easy, delicious way to enjoy omega-3-rich salmon
1 pound of salmon
1 teaspoon of canola oil
¼ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix together maple syrup, low-sodium soy sauce and garlic in a small bowl.
Lightly grease a shallow baking dish with canola oil.
Place salmon in baking dish and coat on both sides with the maple/soy/garlic mixture.
Cover and refrigerate coated salmon to marinate for 30 minutes.
Take dish out of the refrigerator and sprinkle both sides of salmon with ground black pepper, to taste.
Place the baking dish of salmon in preheated oven and bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until salmon flakes easily with a fork.
Per serving: 175 calories, 2 grams fat (1gram saturated fat, 1 gram monounsaturated fat), 17 grams carbohydrate, 530 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber, 22 grams protein
Spinach Strawberry Salad with Walnuts
This nutrient-packed salad is dressed with a heart-healthy olive oil-based dressing flavored with vitamin C-rich lemon and strawberries, and topped with walnuts rich in omega-3.
8 strawberries, stems and leaves removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
2-4 tablespoons of lemon juice (the juice
of 1 lemon, or to taste)
2-3 tablespoons maple syrup (to taste)
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1/8 teaspoon salt (to taste)
8 ounces baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
Place strawberries, olive oil, lemon juice, maple syrup and salt in a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. Stir in poppy seeds.
Place spinach and strawberries in a serving bowl and toss with dressing.
Top the dressed salad with toasted walnuts.
Chia seeds are packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber, so they make an ideal ingredient to give breakfast a boost. Plan to assemble the “pudding” the night before for the best consistency.
3 tablespoons dried chia seeds
1 cup vanilla almond milk or vanilla soy milk
¼ cup blueberries
In a jar or bowl with a tight-fitting lid, mix together the chia seeds and the almond or soy milk.
With the lid on, shake the mixture well.
Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes and then shake it again to remove any clumps.
Place the covered mixture in the refrigerator for at least 1-2 hours to set. For best results, let mixture set overnight.
Top the chia pudding with berries and enjoy!
Per serving: 301 calories, 13 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat, 2 grams monounsaturated fat, 10 grams polyunsaturated fat), 95 milligrams sodium, 29 grams carbohydrate, 17 grams fiber, 10 grams protein