Dietary fat is essential for good health. It is one of the three main groups—along with carbohydrates and protein—of energy-yielding nutrients. Fat in the diet helps promote satiety (a feeling of fullness) at mealtime while boosting the absorption of important nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and cancer-fighting phytochemicals like carotenoids. But not all dietary fats are created equal. Although certain types of fats fight inflammation and lower your risk of chronic disease, others do just the opposite. Use the following four tips to help you boost your intake of healthful fats—and ditch the down-right harmful ones.
1. Say “good-bye” to trans fats. Trans fats are synthetic fats that are chemically produced by adding hydrogen to an unsaturated vegetable oil. The end product is a shelf-stable, solid fat that researchers have found increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, and even diabetes. In fact, the negative health effects of consuming trans fats are even greater than those of consuming naturally-occurring saturated fats.
Trans fats are commonly found in highly-processed and packaged snack foods like chips, crackers, cookies, and other baked goods. In recent years, food manufacturers have begun to phase trans fats out of their products. But if you consume food that comes in a box or bag, reading food labels will help you identify and avoid these harmful fats. Be sure to check the nutrition facts panel and choose only products with 0 grams of trans fat or labeled “trans fat-free”. And scan the ingredient list on the package, avoiding any products that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
2. Limit (or eliminate) animal foods from your diet. Saturated fats—like butter and lard—are naturally-occurring fats that are solid at room temperature. Most commonly found in animal foods, researchers have found that saturated fats may increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers. And in a recent study published in 2012, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that saturated fats—like those from red meat and dairy products—may age the brain more rapidly (by as much as 5 to 6 years) compared to beneficial poly- and monounsaturated fats, which appear to slow aging in the brain.
Experts recommend limiting your saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake (about 22 grams of fat on a 2,000-calorie diet) for good health. And researchers have found that replacing saturated fats in your diet (from animal foods like red meat, ice cream, eggs, butter, and milk) with heart-healthy fats (from plant foods like avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds) may help lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart and other chronic diseases.
3. Make a little room on your plate (or in your blender) for coconut oil. Although more than 90 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, its fat is in the form of beneficial medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which behave differently in the body than the long-chain fatty acids comprising the saturated fats of animal products. MCFAs provide your body with quick energy and may even help boost metabolism and fat burning. The fatty acids in coconut oil, like lauric acid, also appear to have strong anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. And unlike saturated fats from animal foods, those in coconut oil do not appear to adversely affect blood cholesterol or lipid levels.
Most people can enjoy a tablespoon of coconut oil (14 grams of fat) each day without exceeding the saturated fat intake guidelines (less than 10 percent of total calories). You can use a few teaspoons of coconut oil for sautéing (it has a high-smoke point) or add a tablespoon to blended smoothies for a boost of its beneficial fats—and flavor.
4. Eat more fat-rich plant foods. Beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature—and abundant in plant foods. Monounsaturated fats, like oleic acid, are found in vegetable oils (like olive and sesame oil), avocados, and many nuts and seeds. They are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved blood sugar and insulin levels.
Polyunsaturated fats include both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids–essential fats that our bodies cannot produce and must be consumed from the diet. Together, these fats help boost brain function, promote growth of the skin and hair, and regulate metabolism and hormone production. And when consumed in place of saturated fat in the diet, they help lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Walnuts, flax, chia, and hempseeds are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These fats are well-known for their beneficial inflammation-fighting and brain-boosting effects. Researchers have found that omega-3 fatty acids may improve mood and memory, and protect against age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. They may also help ease the inflammation and pain associated with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
While both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential in the diet, it is important to consume them in an ideal 1:1 ratio (it is reported that most Americans consume them in a 10:1 ratio). Consuming too many omega-6 fats (mainly from vegetable oils found in processed foods) and too few omega-3 fats can actually increase inflammation. So limit your overall intake of processed foods and instead reach for whole, fat-rich, plant foods like avocados; olives and olive oil; and nuts and seeds. Your heart, brain, and whole body will thank you.
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