Fat gives your food texture, makes it more filling and – oh yeah – it makes food delicious, too. And while the low-fat diet crazes of the 90s might have steered you away from fatty foods, the truth is that healthy fat is a crucial part of your diet. However, it's important to choose the right types of fat. Some of them offer some serious health benefits, while others offer no nutritional value and pose a serious threat to your health.
Since sources of fat are more calorie-dense, it is important to understand what a serving of a fat is equivalent to. For example, one teaspoon of butter, margarine or mayonnaise is one fat serving. For times when you may not have a measuring spoon available, a visual equivalent of one teaspoon is the tip of your thumb. See below for examples of serving sizes for added fats.
Eating foods with fat is definitely part of a healthy diet. Just remember to choose foods that provide good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and balance the amount of calories you eat from all foods with the amount of calories you burn. Aim to eat a dietary pattern that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts; and limits intake of sodium, sweets, sugar sweetened beverages and red meats. Doing so means that your diet will be low in both saturated fats and trans fats.
One easy rule: You should always avoid trans fats—they’re listed on the nutrition label as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Most are artificial and raise your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol (the good kind that helps keep blood vessels clear). According to the American Heart Association, trans fats increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and are associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Salads are a healthy-eating staple. But not only can they sometimes leave us hungry, but they can also just become flat-out boring after awhile. Ingredients packed with healthy fats are an easy solution for both of those common issues. Healthy fats include unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Including healthy fats that are rich in protein and fiber to your salads is a great way to get a nutritional boost and feel full at the same time. Healthy fats come in a variety of food sources that are all very easy to use as salad add-ins. We talked to Beth Warren, registered dietitian and Author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl to learn her top picks for salad add-ins full of healthy fats.
These small but mighty seeds are loaded with omega-3s, fiber, protein, essential minerals, and antioxidants. Their popularity as a superfood is well deserved—you can toss a tablespoon into your smoothies for a quick fat, fiber, and protein boost, or soak them overnight for a ready-when-you-wake-up breakfast parfait. You can even use them to add nutritional punch to your desserts.
Omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids are both a type of polyunsaturated fat. For a healthy body, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids need to be eaten in about a 1:1 ratio. However, the standard American diet contains about 15 to 16 times as many omega 6s as omega 3s, so the ratio is way out of whack. Omega 6 fatty acids eaten in a high concentration like that become pro-inflammatory and promote heart disease.
The type of fat with no redeeming nutritional value is trans fat, which is created when food manufacturers artificially convert unsaturated fatty acids into solid, saturated fats. Trans fats have the worst effect on your cholesterol levels, because they actually lower the good HDL cholesterol and increase the harmful LDL cholesterol. They're also highly inflammatory, which may contribute to chronic diseases, and they contribute to insulin resistance, which drives diabetes development.
But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yet another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.
Flax seeds and chia seeds contain a fat called ALA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid that can aid weight maintenance and may reduce heart disease risks by promoting blood vessel health and reducing inflammation. A recent review in the journal Nutrients found that omega-3s can both enhance fat-burning and decrease hunger levels while a report in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that at a sufficiently high intake, omega-3s improve our ability to metabolize fat by altering the way certain “fat genes” function.
Fat came under scrutiny in the 1960s when the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to publish a review on sugar, fat, and heart disease. The sugar industry funded the research to cover up warning signs, which emerged in the 1950s, that sugar caused heart disease (1). Shifting the blame away from sugar, the researchers singled out saturated fat as the cause of heart disease.
Olive oil is one of the easiest ways to dress your salad. It has anti-inflammatory properties and contains antioxidants. It’s also considered a monounsaturated fatty acid, which is a healthy dietary fat. “Olive oil has been shown to lower the risk of stroke. But be sure to get extra virgin for the most benefits,” advises Warren. Create an array of infused olive oils to not only reap the health benefits but also avoid boring your taste buds. Seamless ways to infuse oils include adding pepper flakes, garlic cloves, or thyme in an airtight glass bottle with your favorite olive oil. Let it marinate overnight—the end result is a vibrant topping for your next salad.
Unfortunately, buying this healthy fat isn’t as easy as just grabbing the first bottle you see. Make sure to pick only extra virgin varieties of the oil, which means no chemicals are involved when the oil is refined. Unfortunately, many common brands have been shown to fail the standards for extra virgin olive oils, meaning it’s important to choose wisely.