Break out the red dresses: February is American Heart Month. What better time is there to talk about healthy fats?
The Dietary Guidelines recommend that saturated fats, like butter and cheese, be limited and replaced with more nutritious unsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oils. Foods that contain heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been found to improve blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These fats also help to improve absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) which are necessary for proper body function. Omega-3 fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat that receive significant attention due to their role in preventing inflammation, reducing blood clotting, and supporting immunity. On the other hand, foods high in saturated fats, a category which includes trans fats, can promote formation of clogging plaques in the arteries.
Healthy fats that are primarily unsaturated are liquid at room temperature while fats that are mostly saturated are solid at room temperature. For example, compare olive oil and butter. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and is liquid at room temperature while butter is high in saturated fats and is solid at room temperature, although it melts when heat is applied. While some fats are considered healthier than others, excessive fat intake of any variety can still lead to weight gain as one gram of fat contains 9 calories. Consume monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in moderation as part of a balanced diet, and strive to consume less of saturated and trans fats. Still trying to get a grip on which fats are found in what foods? Read on to learn more about each type of fat and where they can be found.
Monounsaturated fats can help to prevent heart disease by lowering blood pressure and harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. These fats also provide phytochemicals such as antioxidants that help to prevent inflammation within the body. Monounsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils (olive, canola, peanut, sesame), avocados, nuts (almonds, pistachios, peanuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans), nut butters, olives, and sesame seeds. Consume these fats in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
Polyunsaturated fats, like monounsaturated fats, are protective against heart disease. There are two types: omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Major sources of omega-6s include nuts (walnuts, pine nuts), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), meats, eggs, and many vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sesame, soy, and sunflower). Omega-3s help to support immunity and defend the body against inflammation. Omnivores can get their omega-3s from fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, herring) or omega-3 fortified eggs while those following a plant-based diet can find them in walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, soybeans, or oils (flaxseed, canola, walnut, soy bean). Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats should be included in a balanced diet in moderation.
Saturated fats promote blood clotting and raise total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10% of total daily calories are from saturated fats. Main sources of saturated fats include animal products (such as cream, whole milk, cheese, butter, and meats), although some tropical oils (e.g. coconut, palm) offer saturated fats in a lower amount. Lower your saturated fat intake by choosing low-fat dairy, lean meats, and skinless poultry.
Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts but are more commonly added to products via a process called hydrogenation. While regulations allow products with less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving to list their content as 0 grams on the food labels, you can still uncover which products actually contain these fats by looking for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils on the ingredient list. Trans fats are shown to raise “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” HDL cholesterol, thus increasing risk of heart disease.
Trans fats are used to produce butter and margarine since they prevent spoilage and promote solidification into a stick form. These fats can also be found in food products that use butter, margarine, or shortening such as some brands of chips, fried foods, pastries, crackers, and desserts. Use trans fats sparingly, avoiding if possible. If you just can’t swap out your butter for oil when cooking at home, choose liquid or soft butter varieties when possible; they contain fewer hydrogenated oils and therefore, fewer trans fats.