General guidelines for choosing healthy fats
With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing. But the bottom line is simple: don’t go no-fat, go good fat.
If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing saturated fats and trans fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans and legumes, or using olive oil rather than butter.
- Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commercially-baked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.
- Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.
- Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.
How much fat is too much?
How much fat is too much depends on your lifestyle, your weight, your age and most importantly the state of your health. The USDA recommends that the average individual:
- Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories
- Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)
- Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Getting more good, unsaturated fats in your diet
Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats everyone keeps talking about?
The best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
- Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try canola or vegetable oil.
- Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.
- Reach for the nuts. You can also add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.
- Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own. Try them plain or make a tapenade for dipping.
- Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.
Damaged fat: When good fats go bad
A good fat can become bad if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Polyunsaturated fats are the most fragile. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an opaque container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Superfats for the brain and heart
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. While all types of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, omega-3 fats are proving to be especially beneficial.
We’re still learning about the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but research has shown that they can:
- Prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression
- Protect against memory loss and dementia
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer
- Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions
- Support a healthy pregnancy
Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health
Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain. Research indicates that they play a vital role in cognitive function (memory, problem-solving abilities, etc.) as well as emotional health.
Getting more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can help you battle fatigue, sharpen your memory, and balance your mood. Studies have shown that omega-3s can be helpful in the treatment of depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder.
There are several different types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- EPA and DHA – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have the most research to back up their health benefits. Both are found in abundance in cold-water fatty fish.
- ALA – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plants. Studies suggest that it’s a less potent form of omega-3 than EPA and DHA. The best sources include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil.
Fish: The best food source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fats are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning they are essential to health, but your body can’t make them. You can only get omega-3 fats from food.
The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or high-quality cold-water fish oil supplements. Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed.
Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins in fish. However, most experts agree that the benefits of eating two servings a week of these cold-water fatty fish outweigh the risks.
If you’re a vegetarian or you don’t like fish, you can still get your omega-3 fix by eating algae (which is high in DHA) or taking a fish oil or algae supplement.