Healthy Fats: Truths & Myths
Lauren Ronquillo, RD
For years, medical and nutrition professionals warned against the dangers of a high-fat diet and recommended limiting fat, particularly saturated fats. We were told that low fat and high carbohydrate was the way to go for optimal health. The 1980s and 90s marked the height of the low-fat craze. People were purchasing low-fat food items more than ever before. What consumers did not realize, however, was that with the removal of fats, something needed to be added in its place. Enter the addition of extra sugars and chemical additives to make up for the taste of the fat that was missing.
The world of nutrition, just as any other science, is constantly being studied and researched. An overwhelming amount of research throughout the last 10 years has shown that avoiding fats is not recommended from a weight loss point of view, but more importantly, for an overall health point of view. Healthy fats are vital for healthy brain and metabolic function; certain foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids (think nuts, salmon, grass-fed beef and cod liver oil) are shown to help prevent inflammation and heart disease. Fats help to stabilize moods, improve immune and reproductive systems, and improve skin. Not only does fat help us feel full and satisfied after a meal or snack, but also it is essential for the absorption of Vitamins A, D, E and K into the body.
Avocados – High in fiber and potassium and mostly made up of monounsaturated fats, avocados have a mild, subtle flavor making them very versatile. Use them in salads, tacos and sandwiches. Top chili with sliced avocado. Mash avocado with a little salt and mustard to replace mayonnaise on a sandwich. Blend them into a fruit smoothie (you can’t taste it!) Add to tuna, egg or chicken salad.
Full-fat dairy – Whole milk, regular cheese and full-fat yogurt – opt for plain yogurt and flavor with fruit, honey, granola, cinnamon, etc., to your liking.
Nuts & Seeds – Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds, are not only a healthy fat source, but are also high in fiber and protein. A small handful is a great portion to aim for. Eat much more than that and the calories will add up quickly! Add chia seeds to smoothies, ground flaxseed to baked goods or oatmeal, sunflower seeds to salads and pair nuts with fruit for a healthy snack.
Butter/Ghee – Butter is one of the most versatile and delicious fats available. Butter is able to tolerate high heat without oxidizing (aka becoming toxic to your body). Therefore, butter is great for sautéing foods, added in baked goods and topped on vegetables. Ghee is a clarified version of butter meaning that much of the water, lactose and protein are taken out of the butter, resulting in more fat-concentrated ghee. Many people who cannot tolerate dairy can tolerate ghee. It has a nutty flavor and can be used just like butter.
Coconut – Like butter, coconut oil is great for frying and sautéing, as it is able to tolerate high heat without oxidizing. It also can replace vegetable oils in baking. Coconut oil can be added to smoothies (make sure it is melted first). Some people even add it to their coffee. Look for virgin or unrefined coconut oil to get the most health benefits. TIP: if you are not used to coconut oil, add it into your diet slowly as consuming too much can have a laxative effect. Coconut butter, milk and yogurt are great alternates if you are dairy-free. Coconut flakes are great for baking or adding to yogurt or oatmeal.
Avocado Oil/Olive Oil – Best used in the base of homemade salad dressings or to drizzle on fresh vegetables, these oils can also be used for roasting or sautéing foods or to replace vegetable oil in baked goods.
Whole eggs – Yes, even the yolks! Eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Everyone is aware that egg whites have protein, but the yolks have the most nutrients. They not only contain protein, but healthy fat (Omega 3s), and are one of the very few foods that contain Vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K. Furthermore, the cholesterol in eggs will NOT raise your cholesterol levels. Like fats, dietary cholesterol has been vilified, but it is vital (especially in children) for brain health and cellular regulation. Bottom line: don’t throw those egg yolks away!
Fats to Avoid
Vegetable Oils – Sunflower, safflower, peanut, canola, soybean, palm, palm kernel oil – these oils are full of Omega 6 fatty acids. While Omega 3s are beneficial to health, excess Omega 6s have been linked to inflammation, which contributes to disease. These oils are also processed in a way that uses chemicals and toxins. Vegetable oils are not suitable for high-heat cooking, so when used for cooking or frying, they become rancid (even if it doesn’t taste like it), which causes oxidation in the body. Oxidation can lead to various diseases, including cancer. Lastly, vegetable oils are full of trans fats and have been linked to an increased risk in cardiovascular disease. Most packaged foods contain one or more of these oils, so it is best to avoid packaged foods as much as possible. When cooking from home, use coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, butter or ghee in place of these oils.
Margarine/butter spreads – Once deemed a healthy alternative to butter, margarine and butter spreads flooded the market in the 1980s and, while they don’t seem to be used as frequently as before, they continue to be staples in the grocery stores. They are made with the same vegetable oils noted above, but processed into solid form.
Low fat/fat-free dairy products – Avoid the flavored and/or low-fat yogurts that have added refined sugars or sugar substitutes, other additives and fillers.
In summary: Healthy fats are not to be avoided, but eaten with each meal and snack to help you feel full and assist with nutrient absorption. Fats have numerous benefits including weight loss, brain health, cell regulation, hormone balance, and mood stabilization. Aim to avoid unhealthy fats that are toxic and contribute to inflammation, and to incorporate more healthy fats into your diet each day.