The word is out: Fats are no longer considered the enemy.
That is, for the most part.
What we now know is that it’s more important to add healthier fats to our diets than to avoid fat altogether. In fact, eating foods that contain certain types of fats is encouraged.
And for good reason: researchers have conclusively reported that the consumption of “healthy” fat may extend your life.
A 2017 Special Report by the editors of Environmental Nutrition cites a study in which researchers gathered long-term diet information from people in over 180 countries. One of the findings of the study estimated that 10% of heart disease deaths (or 700,000 worldwide) were due to consuming “insufficient amounts of polyunsaturated fats”.
What do these “healthy” fats do?
A number of things including: providing energy to our bodies, building healthy cells, and enabling us to absorb nutrients from food. Fats make our food taste good, increase our sense of fullness and, in general, promote good health and well-being.
So, can they really be your friend? Yes, they can! But here are a few things you need to know first about this important food group. There are different kinds of fats, just like your human friends – different individuals with different characteristics.
All fats and oils are a mixture of fatty acids including three main types:
Monounsaturated: Among the healthiest of all fats, MUFA’s (monounsaturated fatty acids) help combat inflammation, reduce the risk of cardio-vascular disease, and are full of healthy nutrients. Monounsaturated fats raise the levels of your good cholesterol while lowering the bad. A great source: avocados. One medium avocado contains about 23 grams of fat most of which is monounsaturated. A quarter of an avocado can:
- be added to your salad,
- take the place of the sour cream on your potato,
- be used instead of mayo on your sandwich, or
- replace the butter on your toast
Olives, olive oil and almonds are all great sources of monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated: The most widely known PUFA’s (polyunsaturated fatty acids) are Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Here’s where some of these “friendly” fats get a little more complex:
Omega 3’s are considered the most beneficial of the two especially when it comes to heart health and reducing inflammation. Omega 6’s work with Omega 3’s to help lower cholesterol.
But you know what happens sometimes when even your best friend can get a little overbearing? Omega 6’s may actually contribute to inflammation and weight gain. Most Americans eat too many Omega 6 fatty acids and need to increase their consumption of Omega 3’s.
Omega 3’s are found in high concentrations in:
- wild fish like salmon, sardines and cod
- grass fed meats, whole eggs and some nuts and seeds (particularly flax and chia seeds).
How can you increase your ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids to Omega 6’s?
- cut down on your consumption of processed and fast foods (you’re already doing this anyway, right)?
- decrease the use of polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed oil)
With me so far? Good! Now let’s talk about the third main type of fat.
Saturated: Experts agree that these are the fats you should eat most sparingly. Saturated fats are concentrated in foods like burgers, sandwiches, tacos, pizza, and many processed and packaged foods like sweets and snacks. Consumption of these foods should be minimized.
However, there are some foods containing high amounts of saturated fat that have been proven beneficial.
Remember what I said before about how your friends are all unique individuals? There are also different kinds of saturated fatty acids and not all of them are bad for you. Coconut and coconut oil are great examples. More than half of the saturated fat in coconut is from lauric acid which has been proven to fight bacteria, increase energy and improve cholesterol levels. And that’s just a few of its benefits. Dark chocolate, over 50% saturated fat, contains stearic acid, proven to slow digestion, stave off hunger and actually promote weight loss in some instances.
So, yes, fat can be your friend. In fact, it can be a really good friend. Just remember: if you’re working to lose weight, be mindful that while the benefits of some fats are numerous, they are still “fat” and, therefore, high in calories.
As long as you understand the differences and consume a number of natural fats in moderation, you can be best friends forever!
If you’d like to know more about the science and nutrition of fats, I recommend getting a copy of Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol by Dr. Mary Enig. Not exactly a book to take to bed on a rainy day, but definitely a great resource!