The Secrets of Healthy Fats

Get the facts about good fats and bad fats

Medical understanding of role of dietary fat in health and wellness has changed greatly in the past 40 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says fats and oils supplied about 45 percent of calories during the 1960s. Back then, the adult obesity rate was 9.7 percent, and less than 1 percent of the population had Type 2 diabetes.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates total fat intake is only 33 percent. Yet 34 percent of adults are obese, while the American Diabetes Association reports diabetes has risen to 11.3 percent.

“Simply cutting out or cutting down on all dietary fats and oils is not a magic bullet for weight management or even overall health,” says Matthew Lucks, MD, a Scripps cardiologist. “In fact, there is significant evidence that eating the right fats is healthier than a diet very low in total fats.”

Good fats

Studies on the effects of the Mediterranean diet emerged through the 1990s and 2000s, focusing attention on the kinds of fats associated with specific health outcomes.

Emerging evidence continues to correlate regular consumption of healthy amounts (fewer than 30 percent of daily calories) of unsaturated, healthy fish- and vegetable-based fats to lower rates of heart disease, breast cancer, bone disorders and even dementia.

Healthy fats contain high levels of beneficial fatty acids, like alpha lipoic acid (ALAs) and Omega-3s. They can be found in the following foods:

  • Vegetable oils, like peanut, canola and especially olive oil
  • Nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and cashews
  • Seeds, like sesame, flax, pumpkin and chia
  • Whole olives and avocados
  • Fatty fish, like salmon, trout, catfish, trout, herring and mackerel

Bad fats

Monounsaturated fats and hydrogenated trans-fats eaten in high quantities are associated with high blood cholesterol, fatty plaques in arteries and increased risk of many kinds of disease. These fats are found in:

  • Animal products (fatty red meats, poultry skin, tallow and lard)
  • High-fat dairy products (milk, cream, full-fat yogurt and cheeses)
  • Egg yolks (whites are fat-free)
  • Un-hydrogenated vegetable oils that are naturally solid at room temperature (coconut and palm oils)
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like shortening and margarine

To eat for health, limit these kinds of fats to fewer than 10 percent of daily calories.

Eating healthy whole foods and fats the Mediterranean way

“The eating habits of people in the countries with the healthiest populations include a lot of whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and olive oil, and very little meat compared to a traditional American diet,” says Dr. Lucks.

To improve the health benefits of your family’s meals, try some of the following tips:

  • Choose fish, poultry and lean meats like pork tenderloin. Prepare them with olive oil or other healthy fat. Grilling, pan-searing, poaching, roasting, steaming and stir-frying are all good methods; grilling actually encourages the animal fat to run out of the meat, creating a leaner dish overall.
  • Create your own cooking spray from a healthy vegetable oil. Mix one part olive or canola oil in a clean plant mister with two parts water; use this spray to lubricate nonstick pans when you sauté or pan fry, instead of butter or large amounts of oil.
  • If you crave something crispy, use an oven-bake method. Dredge items (which can include fish and vegetables) in beaten egg white, then place in a baggie full of bread crumbs or panko and shake. Bake the items on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper; a quick spritz of your cooking spray will help the food on top brown without adding significant calories.
  • Add beans, corn meal, brown rice, chopped or grated vegetables to ground meats to lighten and extend meatballs, burgers, meatloaf and/or chili.
  • Include a couple of servings of mixed vegetables (roasted in olive oil) or a large salad dressed with a citrus/olive oil in both lunch and dinner. Add nuts or seeds for crunch and healthy fatty acids.

Find a physician

A Scripps Health primary care or heart specialist can help you design a way of eating for optimal health. Call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777) if you need help finding a doctor who’s right for you.

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