As a weight-loss coach, I’m astounded by the number of people I consult who still think eating fat is bad for their health. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Healthy fats are crucial for a variety of reasons, including:
- Maintaining steady energy
- Vitamin absorption
- Promoting healthy-looking skin
- Reducing inflammation
- Staving off heart disease
- Minimizing risk of developing cancer and Alzheimer’s
Certain healthy fats, like flaxseed oil, even help metabolize dietary fat.
In fact, eating high-fat food can reduce the risk of breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as long as it is part of a healthy Mediterranean diet, according to a new analysis of 50 years of medical evidence. The Mediterranean diet is full of fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish, and also high in monounsaturated fats, like the ones found in olive oil and avocados. This study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, fuels the argument that fat (healthy fat, at least) isn't the enemy when it comes to fighting obesity.
Stroll through any supermarket and you’ll notice a preponderance of low-fat and non-fat items. Is it a coincidence that the national obesity rate has skyrocketed as a consequence? I think not. People who avoid healthy fats tend to consume more carbohydrates, which metabolize into sugar, and ultimately get stored as body fat.
Dietary fat is, per gram, denser than its protein and carbohydrate counterparts. There are nine calories in one gram of dietary fat versus four calories per gram for both carbs and protein.
The good news about there being more calories in a gram of fat is that it will help you feel fuller longer. Just as there are healthy and non-healthy carbohydrates (good: vegetables; bad: baked goods), there are healthy and non-healthy fats.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
Perhaps the most touted of the healthy fats are Omega 3 fatty acids. Many products, from eggs to cereals to mayonnaise, market their products as healthy because they contain Omega 3, but fortified Omega 3 products don’t contain the most potent and beneficial compounds. The best sources are cold-water oily fish, such as:
- albacore tuna (pregnant women and children should minimize because of mercury contamination risk)
Why are these fats essential?
EFAs are necessary for peak health because our bodies don’t produce them on our own; we need to acquire it from dietary sources. There are three forms of Omega 3 acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. The cold water fish listed above contain EPA and DHA, which have been proven scientifically to:
- reduce blood pressure and fat in the blood
- lower triglyceride levels (a more important marker for heart disease than cholesterol)
- reduce risk of sudden cardiac death
- inhibit development of coronary heart disease
The American Heart Association recommends those with heart disease to consume at least one gram of Omega 3 EFAs per day. (Preferably in the form of cold water fish or a high-quality EPA/DHA supplement.)
Healthy fats for vegetarians?
Opt for vegetable sources of Omega 3s (the ALA form). These include:
- flaxseed oil
- soybean oil
- canola oil
Some researchers argue that ALA is not as beneficial as EPA and DHA, so vegetarians are advised to take Omega 3 EFA supplements.
Saturated fat: Avoid like the plague?
Mainstream dietary professionals continue to vilify saturated fat as a major contributor to heart disease.
Some researchers, however, contend that a modest amount of natural sources of saturated fat like butter and dairy and other animal sources offer numerous nutritional benefits. Some even go a step further suggesting that a major culprit for heart disease is not saturated fat, but polyunsaturated vegetable oils turning rancid during the cooking process as well as hydrogenated oils used in processed foods, which are also commonly known as trans fats—the worst type of dietary fat to consume.
A dab of coconut oil or butter are examples of healthy saturated fats, especially for cooking. Saturated fats when exposed to heat do not chemically change easily like vegetable oils. Olive oil, a monounsaturated vegetable oil and a very healthy fat, is the exception to this rule.
Consume at least a little amount of healthy fats at every meal, if you want to enjoy steady energy throughout the day and get optimum nutrition benefits. Opt for Omega 3 cold-water fish sources two to four times per week. Include monounsaturated sources like olive oil, avocados and most nuts. Avoid cooking with polyunsaturated fats like soybean and safflower and corn oil. Saturated fat is ok in moderation as long as it’s from a natural source and hasn’t been overcooked.
Judd Handler eats avocado, nuts, butter, cheese and other dairy, and cold-water fish and maintains a bodyfat level of 10 percent. He can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in April 2011.