(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com.)
For decades, the party line was: Fat will make you fat — and raise your heart disease risk, to boot. But guess what? Fat can actually be very good for you, provided it’s the right kind.
“People were so low-fat crazed for a while, and that’s not necessary,” says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director, Women’s Heart Health at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “There is such a thing as good fats.”
Scrupulously counting the total fat grams you eat isn’t recommended. “By balancing your plate at each meal, and ensuring you have a source of protein, whole grain, vegetable and or fruit and a serving of fat, you’ll naturally end up with a good balance of nutrients,” says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The key is stick to one serving, since fat has more calories per gram.”
“Bad” Fats 101
When rating the types of fats from bad to good, it’s universally accepted by the medical community that trans fat is the worst. Regularly eating even small amounts of partially hydrogenated oils like margarine and shortening are shown to raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol and create inflammation that can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious illnesses, says Harvard Health Publications.
Eating smart is not about the food, as much as it's about how you're feeling
— Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum
Next up is not-so-good-for-you saturated fat, the kind primarily found in animal sources like meat, butter and cheese. These fats raise your total cholesterol, and are often used to make high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, says the American Heart Association, which recommends a maximum daily limit of 13 grams. “Saturated fat may not be as bad for us as previously thought, but it does not appear to be beneficial — unlike unsaturated fats, which clearly show a health benefit,” says Rumsey.
Why “Good” Fats Are Good
Which brings us to “good” fats: The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in plant-based oils, nuts and fish. Why so “good?”
For one, studies suggest that replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fat correlates with lower rates of heart disease, lower blood pressure and higher HDL (good) cholesterol.
Second, including a serving of unsaturated fat in each meal promotes satiety, ensuring you’ll feel fuller, longer. “Fat is actually really important in weight control,” says Rumsey. “It helps to slow digestion and keeps us full for longer, which can help prevent overeating.”
A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet, which consists mainly of vegetables, grains and unsaturated fats, lost more weight than people who stuck to a low-fat diet. (Study participants on the low-fat diet actually gained six pounds on average!)
Without further ado, here are seven full-fat foods you should feel good about eating every day:
1. Peanut butter When you get the urge to eat like a kid again, just say yes, says Rumsey. As long as you choose natural peanut butter with no added hydrogenated fat and eat it in moderation, peanut butter has a beneficial balance of saturated to unsaturated fat. “Almost half the fat in peanut butter is monounsaturated fat,” says Rumsey. Its good fats, combined with relatively high amounts of niacin, vitamin E and other nutrients, may be responsible for peanut butter’s sterling health reputation.
A study published in the New England Journal of Health found that people who eat a handful of nuts a day are 20 percent less likely to die from heart disease, cancer and other ailments.
Serving size: 2 tablespoons. Spread on whole-grain toast and top with dried fruit, eat with sliced banana or stir into steel-cut oatmeal.
Pro tip: When using natural peanut butter, “don’t pour off the heart-healthy oil,” says Rumsey. “Store the jar upside down for a day, then open and stir the oil back into the peanut butter.”
2. Avocado If we were picking heavyweight champs of foods with healthy fat and nutrients, avocado would be a shoo-in for the list. “Avocados are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which can improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce risk of heart disease,” says Rumsey. “They are also packed with folate, vitamins E, C and B6, potassium and fiber.”
While unrelated to eating avocado, some research even suggests that a certain molecule in avocado can fight leukemia stem cells without harming healthy cells.
Serving size: 1/4 of an avocado, or three slices. Rumsey recommends adding avocado to salad, pizza, soup, salsa, eggs and sandwiches.
3. Vinaigrette salad dressing Low-fat Italian dressing is a tempting way to eat light, but experts say reduced fat-and-calorie options are a health bait-and-switch. Low-fat dressing is often spiked with sugar and other additives to compensate for flavor, while a full-fat dressing made with olive oil delivers omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with a reduction in heart disease risk, inflammation, and breast cancer risk, according to recent studies.
So as long as you stick to a 1 or 2 tablespoon maximum of a non-creamy vinaigrette, you’ll successfully balance calorie consumption with heart-health benefits, says Rumsey.
What’s more, you need to eat some fat in order to properly absorb your salad’s nutrients. “Fat soluble vitamins found in vegetables are only able to be absorbed in the presence of fat, so having some fat in your salad dressing is important,” she adds.
Serving size: 2 tablespoons.
Pro tip: Full-fat creamy dressings typically contain a lot more saturated fat than vinaigrettes, without as many of the benefits from unsaturated fat. So if you can’t face vegetables with ranch dressing, opt for the lower-fat variety, says Rumsey.
4. Oily fish It’s no secret that fish is good for you, but some types are even more heart-healthy than others. Oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel contain a wealth of omega-3 fatty acids, which “change the cholesterol panel,” says Steinbaum. “They decrease triglycerides and increase HDL, and they lower inflammation, which is part of what decreases plaque in the arteries.”
Serving size: 3.5 ounces, two to three times a week. “Fish is an amazing source of good fat, but you have to watch serving size,” says Steinbaum.
Pro tip: Mercury is more likely to be concentrated in fish skin. Protect yourself from excess mercury exposure by removing the skin from fish before eating, Steinbaum adds.
5. Eggs The verdict is in: Feel free to eat the whole egg, including the yolk. “It was originally thought that foods high in cholesterol negatively impacted our blood cholesterol levels, eggs being one of the higher sources of food cholesterol,” says Rumsey. “However, more recent evidence shows no relationship between consuming foods high in cholesterol and blood levels of cholesterol, when looking at a typical American diet.”
A 2013 study published in the journal Lipids revealed that eating eggs actually raises heart-protective good cholesterol and a 14-year study published in JAMA found no link between eating one egg a day and heart disease or stroke.
While the yolk contains almost all the fat and cholesterol, it also boasts most of the nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K, folate, B12, calcium, copper, manganese, selenium and zinc. “The yolk also contains omega-3 anti-inflammatory fats (the white has none),” Rumsey adds.
Serving size: 1 egg, or 6 eggs per week
6. Cookies & muffins Good news for sweet carb-aholics. When you crave cookies, cakes, muffins and the like, experts say it’s best to eat small portions of the real thing. As with salad dressing, low-fat or reduced fat baked goods almost always have more sugar, salt and other unhealthy ingredients, says Rumsey.
“When the fat is removed, food companies have to do something to make up for that loss in taste, so you’ll see more sweeteners or additives in the food item,” she says. So eat a few delicious mouthfuls of the full-fat version, and walk away satisfied.
Serving size suggestion: Eat half of whatever you crave and either save the rest for another day or dispose of it.
7. Tofu Tofu options at the grocery store abound, and though you may feel that low-fat is the most virtuous choice of the virtuous choices, full-fat tofu is best. “This is a plant-based protein, so you’re getting healthy unsaturated fat,” says Rumsey.
On top of that, tofu delivers calcium, iron, magnesium and even a little immune system-strengthening zinc. Plus, those rumors about soy increasing breast cancer risk have been debunked. When eaten as an alternative to animal proteins, tofu is a smart choice for your total health.
Serving size: 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards
A Note About Dairy
The fat in dairy is of the saturated variety, so if you indulge in anything but fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt, there’s no getting around ingesting some saturated fat. But that’s not such a sin. Experts typically prefer reduced-fat over unadulterated full-fat dairy.
Rumsey recommends that her patients choose 1 percent or 2 percent milk and yogurt, and full-fat cheese, since a few grams of fat promote satiety.
Wondering if you should stop using half-and-half in your coffee? “If it’s a tablespoon or two once a day, it’s not a big deal,” says Rumsey. But you should avoid flavored versions, because they typically contain a lot of sugar or sugar substitutes, she says.
Bottom line: If your diet is generally healthy, a little saturated fat isn’t likely to affect your heart health.
The Best Way to Eat Good Fat
For optimal health, you should replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fat, incorporate one serving of good fat into every meal and eat fewer refined carbohydrates, says Rumsey. Both Rumsey and Steinbaum advocate a diet rich in fresh produce and whole grains and proper portion sizes of good fats. “To get the full health benefits [of unsaturated fat] you just need a small serving,” says Steinbaum. “Having a little bit every day is part of what is considered to be heart healthy. Just because it’s a good fat doesn’t mean you can eat it with abandon.”
She advises that your meals should follow the MyPlate guidelines issued by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, meaning half of your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruit, one-quarter with whole grain, and the final quarter with lean protein.
Good fat can be treated like a really tasty, satisfying garnish that you should enjoy fully. “Pay attention to your satiety and eat slowly, so you recognize when you’re full,” says Steinbaum. Eating smart is not about the food as much as it’s about how you’re feeling, she says.
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