While fat has been a bad word in nutrition circles for decades, it really shouldn’t be, according to EvergreenHealth nutritionist Marcy Dorsey, RD, who stresses that fat is an important part of a healthy diet.
“Fats in our diet help us feel satisfied,” Marcy says. “At the same time, they provide many health benefits. Fats help our bodies absorb vitamins, build cell membranes, and insulate the nervous system. Young children require fat in their diets for healthy brain and nervous system development.”
What’s important is to choose the right kinds of healthy fats and to eat them in balance with lots of fiber from vegetables and fruit.
The USDA’s healthy plate model (ChooseMyPlate.gov) is a good guideline. It suggests a meal with one-fourth animal products such as meat or eggs.
“If you follow this guideline, you really don’t need to keep track of your saturated fat,” says Marcy. “I’m much more concerned about the amount of refined carbohydrates my patients eat than their fat consumption."
Experts say the percentage of calories from fat that you eat isn’t linked with disease. What matters is the type of fat you eat, so you should choose foods with healthy fats.
Although it’s important to limit the cholesterol you eat, especially if you have diabetes, for most of us dietary cholesterol isn’t a major concern.
The largest impact on blood cholesterol is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet, not the amount of cholesterol you eat.
Marcy says that it is acceptable for 20-30% of the calories in your diet to come from fats.
She gives the example of the Mediterranean diet, which many doctors recommend as being among the healthiest, as an example of the right balance. The Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil, nuts and fatty fish, has been shown to reduce inflammation and protect your heart.
To help you choose the right kinds of fat, it’s important to understand your options:
Saturated fats are found in foods such as red meat, dairy, butter, eggs and coconut oil.
While for many years saturated fat was blamed for contributing to the rise of heart disease, recent studies conclude that saturated fat does not cause heart disease.
Polyunsaturated fats include beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids in foods such as fatty fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds and leafy greens.
Omega-6s are essential fatty acids that are found in meats, dairy, nuts, seeds and processed vegetable-based oils.
Strive to get your Omega-6s from whole food sources rather than processed oils, which are linked to inflammation and may increase your risk for heart disease and cancer, according to Marcy.
Monounsaturated fats occur naturally in whole foods, such as avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil, and are considered heart healthy.
Trans fats, such as hydrogenated oils, are solid at room temperature.
They are used in many packaged foods and can increase your risk for heart disease, so should be avoided.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are types of essential fatty acids that people need to get from the foods we eat.
Both are polyunsaturated fats: omega-3s mostly come from fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna) and sources such as olive oil and walnuts, while omega-6s come from processed oils (such as soybean oil) and the packaged foods made with them.
Experts believe omega-6 fatty acids cause inflammation in our bodies, which can increase our risk for diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and some cancers.
It's also felt that consuming more omega-3–rich foods and fewer omega-6 sources may reduce obesity, depression, and hyperactivity.
Marcy advises her patients to eat a variety of healthy fat sources, including fish, meats, eggs, butter, avocado, coconut, olives, nuts and seeds.
She recommends getting your dietary fat from whole food sources whenever possible as they contain not only fat, but a myriad of other nutrients, and are often good sources of protein.
These are some of the sources and number of servings Marcy recommends:
Olive Oil. Marcy prefers extra virgin olive oil because it is minimally processed, primarily monounsaturated fat and contains many phytonutrients.
Use it for low to moderate heat cooking and to make salad dressing, and the oil will help you absorb a salad’s vitamins.
Nuts and seeds. Eat an ounce of raw or dry roasted nuts or seeds five times a week to improve cardiovascular health.
Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of nutrients.
Try to vary the types of nuts and seeds you eat regularly to get the greatest benefit.
Fatty fish. Eat oily fish – including salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout, sardines – three times a week for an abundance of omegs-3s.
Eggs. They are an excellent protein source and contain only five grams of fat, very little of it saturated.
Eggs from “free range” hens – those allowed to freely roam and feed – are higher in omega-3s than eggs from commercially raised hens.
Meat. Eating it a few times a week is fine. Pastured meat is higher in omega-3s.
Be sure to balance meat with lots of fiber from plant foods.
Leafy greens. Eat dark greens like spinach and kale daily for trace amounts of omega-3s and a host of nutrients and fiber.
Avocado. It is packed with nutrients and its monounsaturated fat may help to lower LDL cholesterol.
Coconut. Fresh coconut is best, but cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil can be used for high-heat cooking.
Butter. Its saturated fat has given butter a bad reputation, but Marcy says it’s okay to eat it in small amounts.
It has some nutrients, and 30% of butter’s fat is monounsaturated.
Marcy also says it is far better for your health than processed vegetable oil spreads or margarine.
Lard. Marcy says it has to be the real thing from a butcher or farmers market, not the hydrogenated product you’re likely to find at the grocery.
Much of lard’s fat is monounsaturated as well.
Fats from these sources can be a healthy part of your diet.
Choose whole food sources and healthy oils, use them sparingly, and enjoy the richness of eating well!
Be sure to check with your physician if you have any concerns about including additional fat sources in your eating plan.
Visit our Healthiest Best Foods homepage for more great ideas to get you and your family eating healthier.