How To Make Fats A Part Of Your Healthy Diet

 Zing Bars contain heart-healthy fats from nut butter.

The latest research on dietary fat suggests that saturated fat may not be at the root of heart disease after all. Dietary cholesterol is being examined more closely as well. While most people would be happy to jump on the butter, lard, bacon and steak bandwagon, experts are still arguing about which fats are good and which are bad, and how much of each kind we should be eating every day. Given the necessarily slow pace of good research, we probably won’t have the definitive answer to that question for quite some time. Unfortunately, this leaves most of us a little confused about how to make fats a part of a healthy diet.

Here’s what we currently know about the different types of dietary fats:

Trans Fatty Acids (aka Trans Fats)

Found in many commercial baked goods and fried foods, trans fats are one fat that experts universally agree are bad for humans. Trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lower your beneficial HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease. To identify foods that contain trans fats, read the label and look for “partially hydrogenated” oils. Even if the front of the package or the nutrition label says, “No trans fats,” the product may still contain small amounts, so read the ingredient list and don’t buy foods containing partially hydrogenated oils.

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)

These are a little trickier because some PUFAs are better than others. This group includes both omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-6 fatty acids are mostly found in vegetable and seed oils such as soybean, corn and safflower oils. These oils are widely used in restaurant food, especially fast food, and in packaged foods. Vegetable oils have the veneer of good health because they’re made from plants; however, these oils are usually highly refined, and a recent study showed that even though they lowered the harmful LDL cholesterol, they actually increased the risk of heart disease. This may be because these fatty acids lower healthy HDL cholesterol along with the LDL. Omega-6’s are also pro-inflammatory, contributing to chronic disease and accelerated aging. Avoid polyunsaturated oils as much as possible, and get omega-6’s only from whole foods sources such as nuts and seeds (since we do need some omega-6s in our diets).

On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids are known to be anti-inflammatory, and they raise HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL and triglycerides, all good news for heart health. Omega 3s are famously found in fish, but also can be found in plant foods such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds. Grass-fed meats and poultry, as well as eggs and dairy from grass-fed cows, are also known to be higher in omega-3s than their feedlot counterparts. Eat at least one source of omega-3s per day.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)

Monounsaturated fats are heart-healthy, lowering lethal LDL and raising healthy HDL. These fats are found in a variety of both plant and animal foods, with olives, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds the best plant-based sources. Make monounsaturated fats the main source of fat in your diet to support good health and longevity.

Saturated Fat

For the past 30 years or so, the advice has been to reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diets to avoid heart disease. This latest study and other recent articles suggest saturated fat may not be so bad, and it could be that refined carbohydrates from flour and sugar are of more concern than saturated fats when it comes to heart health. Saturated fats are found in animal sources such as chicken, beef, lamb, pork, eggs and dairy, but are also found in coconut oil and palm oil.

Cholesterol

Many people will be surprised to hear that cholesterol from food accounts for only about 15% of the cholesterol circulating in the blood. The cholesterol in the blood is mostly produced by the liver, and is used to make hormones and vitamin D. Keeping serum cholesterol in a healthy range is important for heart health, but the best dietary approach to doing that is to cut back on refined carbohydrates from sugar and flour, and avoid trans fats and PUFAs to lower LDL and raise HDL.

So how do you optimize the balance of fats in your diet?

  1. Avoid trans fats altogether.
  2. Avoid highly refined vegetable oils such as soybean, safflower, and corn.
  3. Focus on quality sources of saturated fat, such as from grass-fed cows, pastured chickens and organic, virgin coconut oil. Minimize saturated fat from conventionally-raised animals.
  4. Eat olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds for their monounsaturated fats and omega-6 fats.
  5. Include sources of omega-3 fats such as fatty fish, walnuts, and flax seeds in your diet daily.

The Mediterranean diet, a diet rich in monounsaturated fats from olive oil and nuts, is still thought to be the hands-down best diet for disease prevention. This diet focuses on whole (unprocessed) foods, and is high in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, protein mainly from poultry, fish, beans and nuts, and whole grains. It’s also very low in sugary foods, as well as foods that can be converted by the body into sugar, such as refined carbohydrates from pasta, bread, pastries (and other foods made from refined flour).

Additional resources:

Carol White, MS, RD, CD, has her Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and a Bachelor’s degree in writing. Blogging about nutrition allows her to blend her dual passions for writing and nutrition education. She currently  works as a clinical dietitian in several skilled nursing facilities in the Seattle area.

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