This will always be the most popular question I receive after writing these Basic posts and my answer each time is, it depends! It depends on your lifestyle, your health and fitness goals, your digestion, activity level, and genetics. Good thing, though, that I really love figuring all that out for you so you don’t have to! Just email me and we’ll set up a consultation about your goals and how you can meet your needs without eating too much or too little for optimal health.
Dietary fat has been in the limelight since the 1950s, when researcher Ancel Keys conducted a study analyzing the diet patterns of seven different countries as well as their respective rates of heart disease. At the conclusion of the study, he found that higher levels of serum cholesterol were associated with a higher risk of heart disease and believed that a higher intake of foods high in saturated fat was to blame. (44)
But while there’s still a good amount of debate on the question “Is saturated fat bad?,” there’s no arguing that trans fats should be cut out of your diet altogether. Trans fats are often added to foods through a process called hydrogenation, which is used to increase the flavor and texture while extending the shelf-life of foods like vegetable oils.
Trans fats are typically found in highly-processed fatty foods such as crackers, cakes, donuts and pastries. Studies show that eating this unhealthy type of fat can have detrimental effects on health; one study in the New England Journal of Medicine even reported that each 2 percent increase in calories consumed from trans fats nearly doubled the risk of coronary heart disease. (39)
In fact, while carbohydrates from whole grain, fiber-rich sources can be beneficial, refined carbohydrates found in foods like candies, white bread, baked goods and sweets provide little in terms of nutrition apart from extra calories and sugar. According to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, refined carb intake was associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease while consumption of whole grains and polyunsaturated fats was linked to a lower risk. (6)
The majority of yogurt’s fat comes from saturated fats, but it also contains monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and naturally-occurring trans fatty acids. Because the overall fatty acid profile is reasonably balanced, it will have no overall effect on cholesterol levels because they both increase LDL but also increase HDL, according to The Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Besides the healthy fats, dark chocolate comes packed with antioxidants, principally polyphenols including flavonoids such as epicatechin, catechin and notably the procyanidins, which can help fight off free-radicals and improve blood flow to the brain (which might make you smarter!). A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a few ounces of dark chocolate a day is all you need to reap the benefits.
You may wonder isn't fat bad for you, but your body needs some fat from food. It's a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. Fat is needed to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. For long-term health, some fats are better than others. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Bad ones include industrial-made trans fats. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.
A handful of nuts goes a long way! They provide a protective benefit for heart health and contain what is known as good fat. Nuts help to burn calories more efficiently and are proven to add a satiety factor into your daily diet. This, Warren says, helps with not overloading on calories from other foods. A creative way to use nuts as salad add-ins is by whipping up a simple nut sauce made with almond butter to dress your salad. You can also chop a few of your favorites—almonds and walnuts are particularly good in salads—and sprinkle them in.
The overarching message is that cutting back on saturated fat can be good for health if people replace saturated fat with good fats, especially, polyunsaturated fats. (1, 15, 22) Eating good fats in place of saturated fat lowers the “bad” LDL cholesterol, and it improves the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.
Perez-Martinez, P., Moreno-Conde, M., Cruz-Teno, C., Ruano, J., Fuentes, F., Delgado-Lista, J., Garcia-Rios, A., Marin, C., Gomez-Luna, M.J., Perez-Jimenez, F. and Roche, H.M., 2010. Dietary fat differentially influences regulatory endothelial function during the postprandial state in patients with metabolic syndrome: from the LIPGENE study. Atherosclerosis, 209(2), pp.533-538.
Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature and come mostly from animal products, with the exception of tropical oils. Taking in too much saturated fat is linked with raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood and increasing internal inflammation. Healthy adults should limit their saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of total calories. For a person eating a 2000 calorie diet, this would be 22 grams of saturated fat or less per day. If you have elevated LDL cholesterol levels, it is recommended to reduce saturated fat intake to no more than 7% of total calories. Foods high in saturated fat include:
Fatty, oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease and high cholesterol. “Salmon, tuna, trout, and Atlantic or Pacific mackerel are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Darlene Zimmerman, RD, a dietitian at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Grilled, baked, or broiled, include fish in your heart-healthy diet at least twice a week for a total of 8 ounces, she suggests. Try this great recipe for grilled rosemary salmon.
The body is able to turn ALA into usable DHA and EPA to some degree, but this isn’t as efficient as getting DHA and EPA directly from food sources that provide it. Even after extensive research, it’s not totally clear how well ALA converts into EPA and DHA or if it has benefits on its own, but health authorities, like those at Harvard Medical School, still consider all sources of omega-3s crucial in the diet. (20)
Flaxseed is available in health food stores and many supermarkets, sold as whole seeds, ground seeds, or oil. Although flaxseed oil contains ALA, Magee says ground flaxseed is a much better choice because it also contains 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, as well as healthy phytoestrogens. Other sources of omega-3s include canola oil, broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grape leaves, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, and walnuts.
So how did fats get on the naughty list to begin with? Post-World War II, research began emerging that seemed to link foods with saturated fats, like eggs and red meat, to coronary heart disease. By the 1960s, the American Heart Association had recommended that people reduce their fat intake, and in 1976, the U.S. Senate held a series of committee meetings on the topic. Subsequent food guidelines advocated for eating less saturated fat and more carbohydrates, triggering a war on fat.
Wondering how to eat more healthy fats to help improve your health? There are plenty of healthy fat diet plan options out there, but the easiest way to get started is by simply adding a few nutritious ingredients into the meals you already eat. Try swapping out the low-fat yogurt for a full-fat variety, sprinkling nuts and seeds into your oatmeal, salads and smoothies and drizzling olive oil over roasted veggies and side dishes for an added dose of healthy fats.
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.
SOURCES: Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; Lona Sandon, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; associate professor of nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, consultant, WebMD Weight Loss clinic; author, The Flax Cookbook (Marlowe and Company), Northern California; American Heart Association Advisory on Omega-3 fatty acids; Food and Drug Administration Advisory on Fish Consumption.
According to Ayurveda, fats are used to promote healthy skin, support satiety and calm the nerves. On an Ayurvedic diet, it’s generally recommended to steer clear of trans fats and include plenty of vegetable-based fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fat is also encouraged in moderation by increasing your intake of foods like ghee, coconut oil and grass-fed beef.
Many people also wonder: is cheese bad for you? Like other dairy products, not all cheese is created equal, but it can be part of a nutritious, well-rounded diet. Ideally, look for varieties that are raw, minimally processed and derived from grass-fed animals. Feta, goat, ricotta and cottage cheese are a few of the top healthiest cheese options available.
The benefits of avocados are so numerous that they’re one of the healthiest fruits you can consume, not to mention one of the top healthy fats for keto. Avocado nutrition is rich in monounsaturated fats, which raises levels of good cholesterol while lowering the bad — talk about a double-whammy. Avocados are also packed with the benefits of vitamin E, which help fight free radical damage, boost immunity and act as an anti-aging nutrient for your skin. (7)
Another victim of the war on fat, butter has recently experienced a comeback as the benefits of butter become more widely known. The omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids found in butter help your brain function properly and improve skin health. More importantly, these two fatty acids are considered essential, meaning the body needs them but can’t produce them on its own; instead, they must be consumed from food sources. Butter is also rich in fat-soluble vitamins and trace minerals, including beneficial selenium, a powerful antioxidant. (9)
Nine moderately athletic men took either spirulina capsules or a placebo for four weeks in a study printed in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Afterward, the men who had taken spirulina supplements were able to run 30 percent longer than the men who had taken a placebo and burned 11% more fat during a run! Fueling up before your run? Check out our exclusive report, Eat This, Not That! For Runners.