Fat may not have the best reputation, but this oft-demonized food staple can actually be good for you -- if you incorporate the right kinds into your diet.
Low-fat diet trends have been around for decades. The craze took off in the 1970s, when the science of the time backed the claim that fat caused heart disease. This led to a decades-long obsession with -- and marketing of -- low-fat and fat-free versions of our favorite foods.
Unfortunately, healthy and all-natural food with high fat content fell victim to the low-fat trend. For a time, a slice of bread with zero grams of fat was considered healthier than olive oil. To make the problem worse, sugar replaces fat in many fat-free or low-fat food products, making that product way unhealthier than its fattier counterparts.
Over time, scientists found that not all fat was the culprit. As they discovered “healthy” and “unhealthy” types from different food sources, the thinking on fats has changed -- for the better.
Breaking down the different types of fat
Fats can be broken down into four types: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Each type of fat has a different molecular structure and has a different impact on your body.
Saturated fats are commonly found in animal products, including meat and dairy. While these naturally-occurring fats may sound healthy due to their source, consuming them in excess could lead to high cholesterol.
The research on saturated fat has changed as of late -- some groups believe that they’re harmless and others are still concerned about the impact they could have on heart health. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day, which gives you room to enjoy a pork tenderloin or chicken breast for dinner with room to spare.
Unsaturated fats, made up of the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind, are frequently called the “good fats” by dieticians and scientists alike. Monounsaturated fats from oils and nuts are commonly-suggested alternatives to saturated fats like butter, while polyunsaturated fats from foods like olive oil are “essential” fats -- your body needs to replenish its supply each day through diet. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fats.
Trans fats can make their way to your plate in two ways: from naturally-occurring sources and industry-developed artificial sources. This long-lasting, shelf-stable fat is common in prepackaged and fried foods. Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats have been linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In fact, they can be so bad for your health that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is banning their use, giving the food industry until next year to eliminate them from their menus.
How to work good fats into your diet
Introducing more good fats into your diet doesn’t mean giving up your favorite foods. These fresh, delicious options can be easily incorporated into your meals -- as main courses, side dishes, or snacks in between. The health benefits are well worth the effort -- good fats have been proven to help cholesterol and reduce risk for heart attack and stroke.
Start with these simple steps to get more good fats into your diet:
- Eat more fish. Salmon, tuna and trout have high levels of omega-3 fatty acid, which is key to lowering the triglycerides in your bloodstream that could lead to cholesterol problems. A four-ounce serving of salmon three times a week satisfies your body’s omega-3 fatty acid requirement.
- Switch to olive oil. Up to 85 percent of olive oil’s fat is monounsaturated. Using olive oil in recipes, as a butter substitute or as a dressing replacement can go a long way to improve your cardiovascular health and your cholesterol levels, especially if you’re using olive oil as a substitute for other, less healthy fat sources.
- Go nuts. Walnuts and almonds, among other nuts, are jam-packed with good fats. This healthy snack not only provides a good amount of monounsaturated fat -- a handful of almonds has about 9 grams, while a snack-sized portion of walnuts contains about 2.5 grams -- it also helps curb hunger, so you’re less likely to reach for chips or cookies.
Good fats from fish, oil and nuts shouldn’t be feared -- they’re a natural part of a fresh and healthy diet. Consider trying a (non-fried!) chicken breast for dinner or salmon fillet for lunch to put you on the right track to healthier eating.