I am frequently asked about the role of fat in a healthy diet. Many of my patients have heard or read that they should avoid ‘fat’. It’s not that simple. The truth is that some fats are helpful. It is not unusual for patients to ask me if it’s ok to eat foods that contain fat. I respond by saying, it all depends on what kind of fat and how much of it you are eating throughout the day. February is national heart month. This is the perfect time to start adding ‘healthy fat’ into your daily meals and snacks.
For years, coconut oil has been publicized as a healthy fat. Even though it moisturizes your hair and skin beautifully, coconut oil is not heart healthy. The latest advisory from the American Heart Association (AHA), states that coconut oil raises LDL (bad) cholesterol just like butter, beef, and palm oil. It contains 82 percent saturated fat. Therefore, I do not recommend that my patients bake, sauté, blend, or stir coconut oil into their foods and drinks on a daily basis.
What are Healthy Fats?
Healthy fats are known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) also contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The AHA recommends replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Recent scientific studies show that polyunsaturated vegetable oil decreased cardiovascular disease by 30 percent. This result is comparable to someone taking cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.
Unfortunately, some people inherit genes that raise cholesterol levels more easily than others. Even though these genes can’t be changed, taking a statin should not be the only form of defense against heart disease. Along with decreasing your risk of heart disease by lowering artery-clogging bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglyceride levels, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat also provide essential fatty acids that your body does not produce on its own. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, and peanut butter. Polyunsaturated fat is found in vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and sunflower seeds.
Omega 3’s help to maintain proper brain function, decrease inflammation, and may also reduce the symptoms of depression, dementia, cancer, and arthritis. Since your body can’t produce omega-3’s, it’s important we eat foods that are known to be a good source. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish oils, seeds, nuts, and greens. They are also referred to as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
DHA and EPA are found in oily fish like mackerel, trout, herring, salmon, tuna, and anchovies. Another form of Omega-3 is known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This form is found in vegetable oils, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and dark green leafy vegetables. Fish is considered to be the best source of Omega-3 fatty acids. To keep the transit system to your heart clear from LDL plaque buildup, the American Heart Association recommends at least 2 servings or a total of 8 ounces of fish per week.
Not a fan of eating fish? Taking a fish oil supplement is an option. However, prior to taking an omega-3 supplement consult with your physician.
Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for skin and hair growth, maintenance of bone health, and the regulation of your metabolism and reproductive system. Good sources of Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean as well as nuts and seeds.
A healthy balance of omega 3’s and 6’s is recommended by the Mediterranean Diet. This meal plan incorporates wild caught fish at least twice a week and, limits red meat to a few servings per month. It, emphasizes more plant-based foods-fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains; and encourages cooking with olive oil, herbs, and spices in order to lower your risk of heart disease.
More Reasons to Eat Healthy Fats
Healthy fats provide energy, support cell growth, protect organs, and keep your body warm. Essential fatty acids are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and help with hormone production. If you eliminate fat altogether, meals and snacks will lack satiety, flavor, and texture. Physically there is a difference between good and bad fat. Healthy fats are liquid at room temperature, unlike most saturated and trans fats which are solid.
How Much Healthy Fat do we Need?
The 2015 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that fats should account for no more than 20 to 35 percent of each day’s calories. If you are following a 2,0000-calorie diet you should have between 400-700 calories coming from fat.
The American Heart Association’s recommendations regarding dietary Fat:
- Limit daily intake of saturated fat (found mostly in animal products) to less than 7% of total calories
- Limit trans-fat (found in hydrogenated fats and oils, commercially baked products, and many fast foods) to less than 1% of total calories
- Keep cholesterol (particularly in egg yolks, whole-fat dairy products, meat, and shellfish) to less than 300 mg per day (One large egg contains approximately 186 mg of cholesterol)
- Choose lean meats and vegetable alternatives (such as soy)
- Select fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
- Bake, grill or broil fish, meat, and skinless poultry.
How can we Incorporate More Healthy Fat into our meals?
Incorporating heart-healthy fats into your meals and snacks is easy. Add more monounsaturated fats by mixing up this homemade guacamole recipe. Enjoy it as a dip or a spread on your favorite whole grain toast. There’s not a better time of the year to celebrate with chocolate than February-Heart month. We love making these decadent heart-healthy chocolate no-bakes. While healthy fats are important for balancing our daily meals; exercise, hydration, and sleep are also major contributors to a more energetic heart-healthy life.
Helen has educated the public on healthy eating for nearly 20 years. Her passion is to convey the importance of eating real food and exercising regularly. Her current initiative is encouraging families to cook nutritious meals at home, while dispelling the myth that it is difficult and time consuming. Helen lives in Erie, PA with her husband and their 5 children.