What are healthy fats? Your ultimate guide to making better choices
Confused about good fats and bad fats? You’re not alone. Aside from questions about weight loss, the topic of healthy fats seems to come up with my clients more than any other. And it’s easy to see why. Many people I talk to remember the low fat diet era of 20 years ago… just as they remember the high fat/low carb era that followed right behind. Then, it seems, the focus shifted – suddenly it wasn’t merely about how much (or how little) fat we should be eating, but whether or not we were eating the right kinds of fat.
What Are Healthy Fats, and Why Are They Good For You?
The fats you eat can be divided up into two broad categories – saturated (unhealthy fats) and unsaturated (healthier fats). Of the two, the unsaturated fats are considered better for you, since these fats – derived primarily from plant foods – can help to keep blood cholesterol levels within a normal range. On the other hand, a diet which contains a lot of saturated fats, (which are found primarily in animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk and meat) can contribute to a rise in blood cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into two categories – monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. You’ll find monounsaturated fats in nuts, seeds, olive and olive oils and avocados, and they’re considered heart-healthy when eaten in moderate amounts – and in place of the less-healthy saturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats can be further classified as either ‘omega-3’ or ‘omega-6’ fats. And, while your body requires both types, you need them in the proper balance to promote health. The problem for most of us is that we eat too many omega-6 fats (mainly from fried foods, snack foods and sweet baked goods) and not enough fish, nuts, seeds and leafy greens that provide the omega-3s.
Be Choosy With Fats To Keep Calories in Check
One thing to keep in mind – added fats do add calories to your diet. All oils, for example – regardless of their source – have about 120 calories a tablespoon. Just because olive oil is a healthy fat, doesn’t mean you should pour it all over your food. Small amounts of fat can add a lot of flavor to foods, so use them sparingly, and focus on choosing healthy fats.
How to Get More Healthy Fats Into Your Diet
The foods that contain heart-healthy fats include nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil, seafood, and avocados. Here are some ways to work more of these healthy fats into your day.
Nuts and Seeds
Almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans are considered “tree nuts”, which have more heart-healthy omega-3s than peanuts – which aren’t actually nuts, but beans. Here are some ways to include more nuts and seeds into your diet.
- A handful of nuts makes a filling snack
- Try stirring some nut butter into oatmeal, yogurt or protein shakes, or spread some on apple slices for a quick snack
- Finely ground nuts make a delicious crispy coating for fish or chicken. Dip fish filets or chicken breasts into beaten egg white, then lightly coat with ground nuts. Season with salt and pepper, then bake or saute
- Sprinkle nuts or seeds into green salads, on top of cooked vegetables, yogurt or hot cereal, and into your shakes
- Add nuts and seeds to trail mix
- Tahini (sesame seed paste) makes a delicious base for a salad dressing or sauce.
Olive Oil and Olives
Olive oil is also one of the richest sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. If the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil is too strong for you, look for ‘light’ olive oils which have the same calories as regular olive oil, but are lighter in flavor.
- Use olive oil to replace vegetable oils and butter when you cook
- Make your own salad dressing with 2 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, salt and pepper to taste
- Use a tiny bit of olive oil to flavor cooked vegetables
- Add whole olives to salad, or chopped olives to pasta sauces, or stirred into whole grain dishes after cooking
- Try an olive spread for whole grain crackers. Whip up chopped olives, garlic and a little tomato paste in the blender. You could even add some heart-healthy anchovies to take the flavor to the max!
Fish fat naturally contains heart-healthy omega-3s, but most of us simply don’t eat fish as often as we should – that is, a couple of times per week. If you’ve got problems with the taste or texture of fish, or just don’t know how to prepare it, see my article ‘Not sure about eating fish? Try this tempting fish recipe today!’ for some advice on how to get over some of these common hurdles.
- Canned tuna and salmon are super-convenient. Flake some tuna or salmon on top of a green salad for a quick meal, or try my recipe for salmon patties – which can also be made with tuna.
- Frozen cooked shrimp and scallops are easily added to soups or pasta dishes.
- Try using fish instead of chicken in some of your favorite dishes like tacos or one-dish meals.
- Order fish more often when you eat in restaurants.
Avocados are technically a fruit, and a good source of monounsaturated fat. Here are a few of my favorite uses for avocado.
- Use mashed avocado as a substitute for mayonnaise in tuna salad or egg salad.
- Mash into guacamole with a little lime juice and salt, but use cut veggies rather than chips for dipping.
- Avocado pairs really well with eggs. Try a few slices in an omelet, or on top of hard-boiled eggs.
- Mix diced avocado, mango and red onion with a little lime juice and cilantro into a delicious salsa for grilled fish or chicken.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
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