By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition Services and Senior Centers
It may seem odd to place the words “healthy” and “fat” together, but fat is a necessary nutrient for your body. While various fats in food have different effects on health, some offer health-protective benefits. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to find accurate information to help you make informed decisions about what type of fat to include in your diet.
Fat is a great source of energy and provides nine calories per gram. This could be good or bad, depending on whether you need to lose or gain weight. In comparison, proteins and carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. Fats are important for energy and are carriers of essential nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K and carotenoids. Fats can impact your health and help your heart and arteries if you choose wisely. It is all a matter of balance. Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol may increase your risk of heart disease.
I am aware that there are many articles being written that state eating some foods high in cholesterol no longer raises your cholesterol, but I am waiting for more information before I change my eating habits. Saturated fats are still listed as foods to avoid in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and many foods which are high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fats. All fats contain varying amounts of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. This is where it becomes more confusing.
Which Fats are Best to Include in Your Diet?
Polyunsaturated fats (Omega -6): Studies are still ongoing regarding Omega 6 but research is increasingly leading to the conclusion that these fatty acids likely provide benefits to brain, nerve and heart health. Omega 6 can be found in corn, safflower and soybean oils as well as in nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats (Omega-3): Several studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower cholesterol and support heart health.
- Fatty fish (salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, lake trout, mackerel and herring) should be included in your diet at least twice a week.
- Walnuts are an excellent plant source of Omega-3 fats and are tasty in muffins, salads, cereal and yogurt.
- Canola and soybean oils
- Ground flaxseed and chia seeds are a great addition to breakfast cereal, yogurt and baked goods.
Monounsaturated fats: These fats can also improve blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease.
- Nuts are also a good source of protein, fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals in addition to heart-healthy benefits. Keep portion control in mind because one ounce (approximately 1/3 cup) provides almost 200 calories.
- Avocados are not only an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, but they are also packed with nutrients like folate, vitamin E, vitamin C, B6, potassium and fiber.
- Peanut butter is terrific on toast and as a topping on fruit.
- Olive oil has gotten the most press but, canola and sunflower oil also contain both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. Be cautious with portion sizes. Although there are health benefits, oils are also packed with calories. One tablespoon of oil has approximately 150 calories.
Which is Better: Margarine or Butter?
Butter is a saturated fat—it stays relatively solid at room temperature and it contains cholesterol. It is made from milk, cream, or both and contains at least 80% milk fat. Contrary to many articles in magazines and on the internet, butter is not a great choice for your diet. It has good flavor but you need to be very cautious with the amount used. Margarine became popular in the 1980’s as a butter substitute with less saturated fat and no cholesterol, until there was a question about trans-fat and partially hydrogenated fat in the 1990’s. In response, manufacturers of margarine changed their recipes so their product would contain zero or almost zero trans fats.
Still confused? Read food labels and nutrition facts. Watch for saturated fats and lower your intake of these foods. Try to purchase fat spreads with no more than two grams of saturated fat per serving. Read the list of ingredients and look for the good fats listed above. Be aware of partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats). Note that the FDA allows products that are less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving to be listed as “0” on the food label. Limit your use of spreads, margarines and butter. They are not a good choice of fat. If a recipe allows, use oil as a replacement for margarine when baking.
What Would a Dietitian Do?
With menus and recipes planned at Senior Services, we continue to limit the total amount of fat and avoid trans fats. We provide margarine in place of butter with meals, but limit that as well. We use vegetable oils in cooking and at home I do the same. Olive oil and canola oil are my two fat choices for cooking at home. I use small amounts of spreads with a blend of good oils and as little partially hydrogenated oils as I can find and then limit their use. I save butter for special occasions and lessen the amount to top off a special recipe. Portion control is a must with all fats—even the good ones!