Getting to the Heart of a Healthful Diet: Fats
Fat gets a bad rap, mostly because we link it to weight gain and heart disease. But fats are an important part of a balanced diet. Our bodies need fat for warmth, protection, and to carry out body functions.
The fats we eat effect the amount and type of cholesterol in our blood. There are three major types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and triglycerides. High levels of LDLs (known as bad cholesterol) and triglycerides are a major risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD). This can lead to heart attack or stroke. However, high levels of HDLs (known as good cholesterol) lower the risk of CAD.
The trick is to know which fats are good and which are bad so you can make a balanced diet. It can be confusing, but here are some tips that may help.
You probably have heard about saturated and trans fats. These fats do more harm than good. They raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. Limit these fats as much as you are able.
Saturated fats come from animal products, such as red meat, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter, and whole-fat dairy. It can also be found in baked goods and fried foods. You can limit this fat without giving up these foods. Look for low fat versions of meat and dairy and limit your servings of foods with these fats.
Most trans fats added to foods are the worse type of fat. You can find them in deep fried foods and baked goods like cookies and donuts. On food labels, trans fats may be listed as partially hydrogenated oils. You do not have to give up these foods, just look for options that are made with healthier fats. Some restaurants have chosen to get rid of or lower trans fats in their foods. Again, limit your serving sizes. This will allow you to eat your favorite foods without the worrying about health problems.
That's the bad news, now on to the good.
Good fats help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. They also boost good (HDL) cholesterol. They should be the ones you choose to have in your diet. These fats are mostly plant-based and can be found on food labels as monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats.
Monosaturated fats give you energy and help keep your body warm. This type of fat can be found in foods like vegetable oils, avocados, peanut butter, nuts, and seeds. These fats also contain vitamin E and antioxidants.
Polyunsaturated fats may also contain omega-3 fatty acids. These are heart healthy fatty acids that your body cannot make on its own. This type of fat can be found in soybean, corn, or safflower oils. It can also be found in dark fish, like salmon, or trout.
Fats are high in calories, so try not to eat too much. A little bit goes a long way. Calories from all fats should be equal to no more than 30% of your total calories.
Now you know what is good for you. The next step is to learn to make those changes to your menu.
The Scoop on Spreads
Look at the label when it comes to spreads:
- Compare trans-fat content. Try to find spreads with without them.
- Look for the daily value for saturated fat and choose the lowest amount.
- Try spreads made with:
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
If you find labels that are alike, eat what you think tastes best, but be aware of the fat content. You may find a healthier choice that tastes better than butter if you try a few items.
How to Make the Change
Making the change is not as hard as you may think. Many food companies have made changes to their products to offer healthier fat choices. The first thing is to learn to read food labels. Try practicing at home before you go to the store. Look at what you already have in your kitchen.
Next, you will want to replace as many saturated fats with unsaturated fats as you can. Eating some fats are a part of a healthy diet, so do not be afraid to add the right ingredients to your menu. Here are some tips:
- Use more fat-free or low-fat dairy like milk, cheese, yogurt, or cream.
- Look for lean cuts of red meat.
- Eat fish instead of red meat.
- Replace solid fats in recipes with oil when you are able.
- Add nuts, beans, legumes, or seeds to your meals when you can.
- Try eating walnuts or sunflower seeds as a snack.
- Eat foods with natural oils, such as olives, nuts, avocados, or fish.
American Heart Association
International Food Information Council
Dietitians of Canada
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Accessed February 10, 2020.
Dietary considerations for cardiovascular disease risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/dietary-considerations-for-cardiovascular-disease-risk-reduction. Updated December 11, 2019. Accessed February 7, 2020.
Fats 101. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/Fats101/Fats-101_UCM_304494_Article.jsp. Updated November 14, 2016. Accessed February 10, 2020.
Last reviewed November 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN Last Updated: 2/3/2021