Fat has gotten a lot of discussion in the diet discussion spaces. The low-fat movement that started in the 1980s told us that we should cut fat, while high-fat diets like ketogenic diets tell us otherwise.
How do you know where the answers are? The reality is that fat is ingrained in American diets. It’s in the oil we use in the pan, the fish we cook, the vegetables we eat (think avocado). It is also an essential part of a healthy diet and is crucial for energy, cell function, hormone production and nutrient absorption.
What are the healthiest fats?
Not all fats are created equal, says nutritionist Chris Mohr, but overall fat is essential to our diet. According to Mohr, the healthiest fat is what we need, but often don’t get enough omega-3s.
Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats that are essential nutrients, which means that our bodies cannot produce them on their own. But according to a study based on the National Health and Nutrition Survey, 68% of adults and more than 95% of children consume less than the recommended amount.
Omega-3s are most commonly found in fish, although you can also get them in dark leafy greens, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. Omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fat, are also essential, but Mohr says we have no trouble including them in our diets because they’re found in so many cooking oils, nut butters, and eggs.
Ideally, Mohr says, you’re getting a balance of fat sources. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, fat should make up between 20-35% of our daily caloric intake, with less than 10% of that coming from saturated fats. The guidelines also say to avoid trans fats, which increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Too much of some types of fat may not be the best for us, while others are fantastic, says Mohr. “There are some nuances not only in terms of the quantity but also the quality of the fat we eat.
There are four main types of fats: trans fats, saturated fats and two types of unsaturated fats:
- Trans fat: Usually found in the form of partially hydrogenated oil, which is known to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
- Saturated fat: Most commonly found in solid forms like meat, butter and coconut oil.
- Monounsaturated fat: By comparison, a heart-healthier option that raises “good” cholesterol levels
- Polyunsaturated fat: Contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids
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What are the benefits of omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids support heart health and may also help lower your risk of cancer, cognitive disorders and eye disease. According to Mohr, a lack of omega-3s can manifest itself in the form of dry skin and brittle hair. Studies have also shown a connection to mood. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that can alleviate depression.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend at least eight ounces of seafood per week for adults consuming a 2,000-calorie diet. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to consume between 8 and 12 ounces of low-mercury fish per week to gain developmental benefits for their baby. One serving equals about 120 grams of fish.
Fish is the most common source of omega-3s, salmon and tuna are proven favorites, but Mohr recommends trying herring, sardines and anchovies as well. You can also get some leafy vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil.
For those who don’t consume enough fish, Mohr recommends looking for omega-3 supplements with at least 500 milligrams. For non-fish eaters, check out an algal oil supplement, which is where even fish get their omega-3 content.
Is saturated fat bad?
Much of the public knowledge about saturated fat is that it increases low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and the likelihood of heart disease. But some recent studies challenge current guidelines and suggest there is less of a link between saturated fat and increased risk of cardiovascular disease than previously thought.
According to Mohr, saturated fat is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk. Often when people are told to reduce saturated fat in their diets, they increase their intake of refined carbohydrates like added sugars, says Mohr. This may lower LDL, Mohr says, but it will also lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) and raise triglycerides. It may be healthier to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat in the diet rather than just focusing on reducing saturated fat.
The bottom line then, he says, is to focus most of your fat intake on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and replace your saturated fat intake with unsaturated fats when possible.
Fats are essential, we just need to be careful what we eat, how much we eat, says Mohr.
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