The best way to keep on top of the fats in your diet is to become a label reader. On the nutrition facts panel, you'll find all the information you need to make healthful choices. Look for foods that are low in total fat and well as in saturated and trans fats. Bear in mind that a product whose label boasts it is "trans fat free" can actually have up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving -- and these can add up quickly.
Get more avocados in your diet by trying one of these avocado recipes. Alternatively, use it to cook with by adding avocado oil to your kitchen pantry. It has a mild taste that won’t overpower dishes the way other oils might and also has a high smoke point, which means it works well for grilling or frying. And because it remains a liquid at room temperature, it’s a tasty choice to drizzle on salads, sandwiches or veggies.
If you’re wondering about fat and its place in your diet, you’re not alone. Each year the International Food Information Council Foundation conducts a nationwide survey of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. When the results were released earlier this year, fat was found to be one of the biggest topics of nutritional confusion. Research around the importance of fats in the diet continues to grow and results repeatedly underscore the importance of a healthy meal plan that focuses on moderation vs. a restrictive diet. When it comes to healthy fats, here’s what you need to know.
All fats and oils contain fatty acids. You may be most familiar with Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil. When you eat healthy fats and oils, the digestion process enables the fatty acids to be absorbed into the blood. Fatty acids are a component of fats and oils that become the building blocks of your body, helping to create cells membranes and nerve sheathing among other body functions.
Eggs are an inexpensive and easy source of protein. People often think egg whites are a healthier option than whole eggs because they contain less fat, but while it's true that the egg yolk contains some fat, it's also packed with important nutrients. One whole egg contains 5 grams of fat, but only 1.5 grams are saturated. Whole eggs are also a good source of choline (one egg yolk has about 300 micrograms), an important B vitamin that helps regulate the brain, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. As for the cholesterol? The latest nutrition research has found that eating cholesterol doesn't raise our blood cholesterol. In fact, research has linked moderate egg consumption to improved heart health.
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Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source because they are easier and quicker for our bodies to digest and use for energy. On the other hand, fat takes a different route before we can use it as energy because it is insoluble in our blood. Think of fat as being a reserve or our long-term source of energy that sticks around the longest. On the technical side, which we’re about to get very technical: fat is three fatty acids + a glycerol molecule, or a triglyceride (tri- as in three and glyceride).
We used to think that “fat” was a dirty word. But in fact, there are many healthy fats that can reduce high cholesterol, promote good cholesterol, and be a part of a heart-healthy diet. The secret is to focus on the right fats. “Good fats are monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados, and there are also the polyunsaturated fats found in omega-3 fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds,” says Barbara Mendez, MS, RPh, a pharmacist and nutritional consultant in New York City. “These fats help reduce total cholesterol while raising the ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, cholesterol. This protects the heart from heart disease and also helps reduce total body inflammation. Additionally, these fats nourish healthy hair, skin, nails, and bones.”
Best of all, adding coconut oil to your diet is easy. You can use it for cooking or baking or even try applying it directly to the skin. Beware that when cooking directly with coconut oil, the flavor can be a bit overpowering for some. If that’s the case, try using a bit less. It’s also important to note that, at room temperature, coconut oil is solid, so it’s not the best choice when you need a healthy fat in liquid form. Additionally, when choosing a coconut oil, extra virgin varieties are best, as refined or processed coconut oils can eliminate many of the health benefits.
One way to combat inflammation is to eat more Omega 3s to help balance the ratio. But you can also look at your intake of omega 6s and try to cut back on those as well. Beef that is fed corn or grains is high in omega 6s (conversely grass-fed beef is high in omega 3s.) Safflower, sunflower corn, and cottonseed oils are all high in omega 6s. (Read labels for chips, crackers, cookies, and other processed foods, which often contain these oils.) Soybeans and corn are also high in omega 6s. Cutting back on processed foods and eating more cold water, high-fat fish can help get this ratio back in balance.
The type of fatty acids that make up coconut oil’s saturated fat content is medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and are about 65% of its fat content. Unlike long chain fatty acids (the majority of fats in our diet) which must go through modification prior to being digested and absorbed in our bodies, medium chain triglycerides are passively diffused from our gastrointestinal tract to the portal system. In other words, our bodies find it super easy to break down the fat before getting rapidly absorbed and used for energy by the body. Coming from a clinical background, MCT’s are very commonly used in treating people who have malabsorption issues, are on ketogenic diets, or are increasing calories without much volume.
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.
All foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats. Even healthy foods like chicken and nuts have small amounts of saturated fat, though much less than the amounts found in beef, cheese, and ice cream. Saturated fat is mainly found in animal foods, but a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.
Dr. Michael and Dr. Mary Eades in their book Good Calories, Bad Calories write about the role that saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil play in immune health stating that the “loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi”.
Healthy fats in the right ratio are needed for bone mineral density and the prevention of osteoporosis. Fats are involved in calcium metabolism and the vitamins K2 and D are both fat-soluble nutrients that collaborate in building bone. Many factors influence bone health, but providing the building blocks for bone with adequate “good” fats and the ideal omega-3 and -6 ratio can only help.
One cup of black olives has 15 grams of fat, but again, it is mainly monounsaturated. Plus, no matter what variety of olive you enjoy, they all contain many other beneficial nutrients as well, such as hydroxytyrosol, a phytonutrient that has long been linked to cancer prevention. New research is showing that this phytonutrient may play a role in reducing bone loss as well. And if you have allergies or other inflammatory conditions, olives might be just the snack for you as research suggests that olive extracts function as anti-histamines on the cellular level. Even with all these benefits, it is important to be mindful of your serving size as olives can be high in sodium. Stick to 5 large or 10 small olives as the perfect portion.
While all unsaturated fats are good for you, you'll get more benefits from omega-3 fatty acids. These unsaturated fatty acids can't be produced by your body, so you need to get them from your diet. And they're crucial to your well-being, since they promote good cardiovascular health, play a role in brain function and offer anti-inflammatory benefits. They're also great for your cholesterol, since they increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels.
All digestion first takes place in the mouth from chewing and saliva beginning to break down food. After you eat a fat-containing food, such as almonds, you first break down the food in your mouth. Next, it goes to your stomach where those solid pieces of almond are further broken down via stomach acid (2). Fats actually hang out in the stomach for quite a bit which is one reason for why fat keeps you feeling fuller longer. Depending on the volume of food and components of food, healthy fats may keep you feeling full for hours.
Confused yet? Why would our body break something down to just put it back together? Long-chain fatty acids are insoluble in blood and in order to transport these across, triglycerides are packaged into chylomicrons that are basically a vehicle that gets released into the lymphatic system and eventually in the blood for circulation. When chylomicrons reach the capillaries of muscle and fat tissue, they activate lipoprotein lipase (stay with me here).
Although fat is an essential part of the diet, keep in mind that most high-fat foods are also considered calorie-dense foods. When increasing your intake of healthy fats, it’s important to account for this by making modifications to your diet, such as decreasing your intake of refined carbs or sweets. Without making a few simple swaps to your diet, adding high-fat, high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain.
But wait, bile isn’t the only thing added in here, our pancreas also adds pancreatic digestive juices called lipase to the duodenum which helps break down triglycerides into two fatty acids and a monoglyceride. After this step, though, the fat droplets don’t just disappear. Instead the fatty acids and monoglycerides are absorbed in the microvilli (remember these from Digestion, part I?) and reassembled into triglycerides.
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)
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)
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.