The Skinny on Fat

Good fat, bad fat, no fat, low-fat, butter, margarine, olive oil — is your head spinning yet?

The many opinions on dietary fat may leave you feeling confused about what type and how much you should be eating. The great fat debate dates back several decades to advice to eat more low-fat foods to reduce risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. This recommendation led to eating too many highly processed, “low-fat foods,” which are filled with sugar, and the rate of heart disease, along with other chronic health conditions, continued to rise.

Over the last 20 years, it’s become more clear that the type of fat you eat is what matters most. Research has shown that limiting foods high in saturated fat, while eating more foods with unsaturated fats, particularly monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, leads to the best health outcomes. The beneficial fats come primarily from plant sources such as olives and olive oil, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocado (the jury is still out on coconut oil, however, due to its high levels of saturated fat).

Choosing plant sources of fat more often than those in processed foods, baked goods, and fattier cuts of red meat can have a positive impact on your health. That’s not to suggest you’re limited to only plant-based fats. Consuming fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, which offer heart-healthy omega-3’s, can play a supporting role in a healthful diet.  If you do choose to eat red meat on occasion (12 ounces per week or less is recommended), look for leaner cuts of grass-finished beef, which contain a higher amount of omega-3’s, making it a better choice than conventional beef, but still not as beneficial as fish or plant-based fats.

Interestingly, diets higher in fat – more than 30%– have been tied to weight loss, which is attributed to fat’s ability to keep you satiated. Reduced inflammation and lower risk of many chronic diseases is another benefit of consuming plant-based fats.  However, that doesn’t mean we can eat high fat foods with abandon, as fatty foods are calorically dense, meaning they provide a lot of calories for a little volume of food. It’s best to add flavor and texture with moderate amounts of fat, and choose plant sources most often.

Making a few simple changes to your diet can benefit your heart and your overall well-being. Give a few (or all) of the following a try for a health supporting boost.

  • Cook with olive or canola oil instead of butter (don’t forget to measure your portion – 1 tbsp is 120 calories).
  • Instead of cheese, try sliced avocado on your sandwich or salad.
  • Snack on a handful of almonds instead of potato chips.
  • Aim to eat fatty fish like sardines, salmon, or tuna at least once per week (if eating fish is part of your diet).  
  • Sprinkle walnuts, chia, or hemp seeds on your morning oatmeal.
  • Add sunflower or pumpkin seeds to your salad.