Why Fat Deserves a Second Chance
Remember a couple decades ago, when everyone thought fat was the enemy…whether they were trying to lose weight or not? As with so many other dietary fads (counting calories, anyone?), the truth is a little bit more complicated. And even some recent studies can be misleading.
Fat’s What I’m Talkin’ About
First things first. What is fat? It’s a macronutrient, just like water, protein and carbohydrates. And humans need fat as a source of energy and essential fatty acids that our bodies can’t make. Fat also helps us absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Said another way, certain fat-soluble vitamins can’t do their thing if there isn’t at least a little fat present. So, contrary to past popular belief, it’s actually very unhealthy to swear off fat altogether.
Fat got a bad rap for causing weight gain and high cholesterol – but newer studies show that some kinds of fat are actually good for your heart health. As with so many other things, the key is to use some common sense and keep everything in moderation. Not all fats are created equal.
Different Kinds of Fat
To understand what your dietary intake should be, first it’s best to get a handle on the different kinds of fat, and how much you should be eating of each.
Saturated fats are still considered a dietary “bad guy,” linked with raising “bad” LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and increasing your risk for heart disease. This doesn’t mean you need to swear off saturated fats completely – just try to limit them to no more than 10% of your daily calories intake – or 7% if you have high cholesterol. An easy tell for saturated fats? They’re usually solid or waxy at room temperature.
Foods high in saturated fat: beef, pork, processed meats such as salami, dairy products including cream, butter and cheese, and unfortunately…coconut oil (more on that later).
There are two types of trans fats: the natural kind, which show up in tiny amounts in dairy and meat, and the artificial kind, made by hardening liquid oils into “hydrogenated” fats. Naturally occurring trans fats shouldn’t be a major concern – if you’re already careful not to eat too much saturated fat, you’re probably okay. But just like saturated fat, trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol, which is bad news for heart health. Unlike saturated fat, there is no healthy or recommended intake of trans fats. Anything with a hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients? Best avoided altogether.
Foods high in trans fat: margarine, shortening, crackers, microwave popcorn, pre-packaged baked goods.
Okay, we got the nasty stuff out of the way. Now we can talk about heart-healthy unsaturated fats – which are easy to spot because they’re usually liquid at room temperature. Unlike its bad brothers above, unsaturated fat can actually help lower your levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol when eaten in moderation. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The best way to reap the benefits? Replace a product high in saturated fat with an unsaturated fat – like using nut butter on your toast, or garlic-infused olive oil on your popcorn.
Foods high in monounsaturated fat: olive, canola and peanut oil, nuts and nut butters, pumpkin and sesame seeds, olives, avocados.
Foods high in polyunsaturated fat: safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils, nuts.
Omega-3 fats are also a type of polyunsaturated fat. Associated with amazing benefits for your heart health, these good-for-you fats can be found in flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and cold-water fish like salmon, tuna and anchovies. If you’re not following a plant-based diet, fish is the best place to get your omega-3s – aim for 2 servings per week.
Cholesterol is another perpetually misunderstood ingredient. For years, people thought that eating foods high in cholesterol – like eggs – was a one-way ticket to having high cholesterol yourself, leading to increased risk for heart disease. The truth is, people usually get high cholesterol from eating sugar, trans and saturated fats, or due to genetic factors, than from cholesterol-rich foods. So what is it? A fatty substance created by the liver, and necessary for digestion and hormone production. So you do need cholesterol to function properly – but a little goes a long way.
A Note on Coconut Oil
Before we move on, we just want to address the white, tropical-smelling elephant in the room. There are a lot of articles out there saying coconut oil is practically a health product. The truth is, it’s actually a saturated fat, not unlike like butter, cream or meat. And just like dairy products, you can safely eat this tasty, vegan-friendly oil in moderation – as we said before, no more than 7-10% of your daily calorie intake. But in high doses, it will raise your LDL cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease. Stay safe, kids!
Make Fat your Friend
So now you know…there are good fats and bad fats, and different recommended daily doses for each. But now that you’re armed with this knowledge, how do you act on it? Here are some tips to get into healthy fat habits.
Read the label. Check the nutritional fact tables of the foods you eat, and aim for snacks low in trans and saturated fats. If you know what you’re actually eating, it’s easier to meet your nutrition goals.
Seek out unsaturated fats. Throwing together a salad? Toss in a handful of nuts or seeds, half an avocado or some olives. And of course, choose a dressing with a base of heart-healthy oil.
Eat more plant-based protein. Even if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, try swapping out proteins high in saturated fats, like cheese and beef, for a healthier option like beans, hummus or baked tofu. Even if it’s just a couple meals a week, the benefits will be undeniable.
So there you have it. With a couple small tweaks, it’s pretty easy to reduce your intake of unhealthy fat – and reap all the benefits that healthy, unsaturated fats have to offer.
What’s your favourite trick for heart-healthy fats? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: shutterstock.com/AlexanderProkopenko