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.
Polyunsaturated fats are required for some of the normal body functions listed above, but the body can’t produce them so they must be obtained from foods. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and can be found in cold-water high-fat fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil (again look for non-GMO or organic), and unhydrogenated soybean oil (also look for non-GMO or organic as most soy products in the US are GMO unless they specifically state non-GMO or organic.) Omega 3’s are also found in some greens, including romaine, spinach, and arugula. Note that the body only partially converts plant-based omega 3’s to DHA and EPA, which are found in cold-water fish
Trans fats are processed to prevent rancidity by combining liquid oil with hydrogen to make a solid fat. Trans fats are commonly found in margarines and vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and fast-food French fries. Look for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats or oils when you read labels, and avoid eating these foods if possible.
Saturated fat. This is a type of fat that comes mainly from animal sources of food, such as red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
The majority of your fat intake should be from unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. So how much saturated fat per day should you aim for? Both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and World Health Organization currently recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. (42, 43) Stick to healthy sources of saturated fat such as grass-fed beef, coconut oil and MCT oil rather than fried foods or processed meats that are laden with additives and harmful ingredients.
The beauty of nuts and seeds is that you’re spoiled for choice. Walnuts are a great high-fat option with 5 grams of fat per serving, and almonds are packed with vitamin E, but there are so many nuts to choose from that you really can’t go wrong. In fact, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts all have their own delicious nutritional profiles and are rich in healthy fats like oleic acid. You can also opt for nut butters, which make a great snack when paired with apple slices or carrot sticks. Look for nut butters with just one or two ingredients and skip those with added sugars and fillers. You can also try toasting nuts and sprinkling them over salads for an instant boost of healthy fats.
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.
Omega-3 fatty acids promote health in several ways. They reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels (8). Omega-3 fats are also essential for brain and eye health (9).
For years, only true diet detectives knew whether a particular food contained trans fat. This phantom fat was found in thousands of foods, but only those familiar with the “code words” partially hydrogenated oil and vegetable shortening knew when it was present. Fortunately, after a large body of research in the 1990s sounded the alarm on its deleterious health effects, a series of policy initiatives led to the near elimination of artificial trans fat in the U.S. food supply by 2018. However, the road to eliminating trans fat was not so straightforward, and outside the U.S. there’s still more work to be done. In many developing nations, trans fat intake remains high.Read more about the key research and policy initiatives shining the spotlight on harmful trans fats.
The discovery that monounsaturated fat could be healthful came from the Seven Countries Study during the 1960s. It revealed that people in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean region enjoyed a low rate of heart disease despite a high-fat diet. The main fat in their diet, though, was not the saturated animal fat common in countries with higher rates of heart disease. It was olive oil, which contains mainly monounsaturated fat. This finding produced a surge of interest in olive oil and the "Mediterranean diet," a style of eating regarded as a healthful choice today.
Fat tends to be considered “bad” because it is associated with weight gain and high cholesterol. However, certain types of fat give protective benefits to the heart if appropriate portions are consumed. The key is to understand how to choose the right amount of each type of fat, so we should look closely at the ideas of total fat and each type of fat.
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.
Are you afraid of fats? If so, you’re not alone. Fat in foods has been vilified in America for the past few decades, as low-fat and non-fat foods became the norm and we were told that cutting even healthy fats out of the diet would help us get the body we want. In fact, it’s one of the biggest nutrition lies that the public’s been told throughout history.
Often thought of as a high-fat food, steak is actually not as high in fat as you may think, particularly if you choose one of these lean cuts, which have 5 grams of fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving, on average. What's more, lean beef is an excellent source of protein, iron, and zinc, all important nutrients for active women. One 3-ounce portion of lean beef packs a whopping 25 grams of muscle-building protein, three times the iron (which is important for carrying the oxygen in your blood to your brain and muscles) of 1 cup of spinach, and a third of your daily zinc needs to help support your immune system. Lean cuts of pork, like pork tenderloin, can also be a good source of fat when eaten in moderation. Cured and processed pork, like bacon, often contains loads of sodium and other preservatives like nitrates (which have been linked to increased heart disease and cancer risk), so they're not the healthiest way to consume the other white meat.
Tuna also packs a high amount of healthy fats and omega-3s. We're talking both the conveniently canned stuff and the kind you find at your favorite sushi spot. It's versatile—tuna steaks, tuna burgers, tuna salad, the options are endless—so it's pretty easy to fit into your diet. Like salmon, you should limit your intake to about 12 ounces (two meals) a week to avoid overexposure to things like mercury that can be found in small amounts in seafood.
Is olive oil good for you? Believe it or not, the olive oil benefits are so profound that almost any diet should include it. First, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is great for heart health. In fact, olive oil consumption has been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol levels and improved blood vessel function. (14, 15, 16) The high amount of antioxidants in EVOO means it protects your cells from damage. It also helps improve memory and cognitive function and works as an anti-inflammatory agent. (17) Since inflammation is at the root of most diseases, this is a biggie! (18)