It might sound counterintuitive, but eating fat can help us maintain a healthy weight. It can also be good for our heart (and hair, nails, skin and so many other organs). The most important thing is knowing what kinds of fats to choose. During the fat-free craze that began in the 1980s, a lot of people packed on the pounds. Why? Because the dietary guidelines at that time encouraged us to reduce or eliminate all fats so we missed out on their healthy benefits. We ended up replacing them with refined carbs, which can contribute to heart and blood vessel disease and yes, weight gain.
As adults, we should all aim to get 20% to 35% of our calories from fat. Here’s a quick “fat primer” to make sure you’re getting enough of the right kinds.
Unsaturated fats are mostly good for us. Healthy unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, while trans and saturated fats are solid. To increase your unsaturated fat intake, replace butter with olive and avocado oils, and swap red meat for seafood or unsalted nuts. (Seafood and nuts also contain some saturated fat, but far less than red meat.)
The two main types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. More on these below.
Monounsaturated fats raise HDL (good cholesterol) and lower LDL (bad cholesterol). Sources include nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews and peanuts) and seeds (i.e. sesame and sunflower), and fruits (i.e. olives and avocados).
It’s healthiest to eat fats in their whole food form and to use a small amount of their oils, including cold-pressed olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil and peanut oil.
Most canola oils are highly processed, so use them in moderation. Look for expeller pressed and non-GMO canola oil. Why? Expeller pressed means the oil is physically squeezed from the seeds, rather than using chemicals that negatively alter the oil’s chemistry.
These fats are found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and fatty fish. They include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Because our bodies don’t make them, we need to get them from food. Bonus: polyunsaturated fats can help lower our total cholesterol level.
It’s a good goal to incorporate more omega-3s into our diets. These all-star healthy fats fight inflammation, help control blood clotting and lower blood pressure and triglycerides.
Salmon, mackerel and sardines are all good sources. When possible, fresh, wild-caught fish is best, but canned options also pack a punch in the omega-3 department. The American Heart Association suggests eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish each week.
If you’re a vegetarian or just don’t like the taste of fish, walnuts and flax, chia and hemp seeds are also good sources.
Omega-6s are found in vegetable oils and many snack foods. The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the typical Western diet is around 10 to 1. Some research suggests that between a 2-to-1 and 4-to-1 ratio reduces inflammatory response in the body as well as the risk of death from heart disease. While omega-6 fats are essential like omega-3s, it’s important not to over do it. Your body’s ability to regulate inflammation depends on a balanced intake of omega-3s and omega-6s. Focus your diet on whole foods and avoid processed foods, as well as oils that are high in omega-6 fats (i.e. soybean, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed and corn oils).
It’s smart to limit these because they increase total cholesterol and LDL, and may boost your type 2 diabetes risk. Meat, seafood and dairy products are sources of saturated fat, as are palm and coconut oils. Whether the source is animal or vegetable, saturated fat carries the same risks. The Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than 10% of our total calories come from saturated fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, for example, your saturated fat intake should ideally be below 22 grams.
These are the “bad” fats that increase total cholesterol and LDL and also lower HDL. Trans fats are liquid oils bombarded with hydrogen so they stay solid at room temperature. They’re mostly found in processed and fried foods. Food manufacturers can say a product is “trans-fat free” if it contains less than half a gram per serving. But, unfortunately, these small amounts can still add up. Check a product’s ingredient list carefully. If you see the words “hydrogenated,” “partially hydrogenated or shortening,” it contains trans fat. Better to skip it entirely and choose whole foods instead.