More than half of American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are largely to blame for this alarming trend.
Cutting out or reducing fats may seem to be a solution, especially for those who are overweight or at risk of a diet-related disease. But it’s important to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats, or good and bad fats.
“We need fats in our diet for energy and to support cell growth. The best sources are foods with healthy or good fats,” says Oscar Cook, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside.
Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These good fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish.
“Foods with monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats are healthier choices and should be used to replace those with saturated fats or trans fats, which are considered to be the bad fats,” says Dr. Cook.
Monounsaturated fats eaten in moderation can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in the bloodstream and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Healthy fats contain high levels of beneficial fatty acids, such as alpha lipoic acid (ALAs) and Omega-3s, and can be found in several types of foods, including:
- Peanut, canola and olive oil
- Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and cashews
- Sesame, flax, pumpkin and chia seeds
- Whole olives and avocados
- Salmon, trout, catfish, trout, herring and mackerel
Saturated fats are common in the American diet. Common sources include butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods.
A diet rich in saturated fats can raise “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL or low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol) and increase the risk of heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends adults limit their consumption of saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of total calories. The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10 percent of calories per day. This includes the following:
- Poultry, especially with skin
- Ice cream
- Some baked and fried foods
Most trans fats are harmful to your health. While natural trans fats from animal products are considered safe in moderate amounts, artificial trans fats are associated with health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The Food and Drug Administration banned artificial or industrial trans fats in processed foods in 2020, which has made them easier to avoid.
Healthy fats are staples of heart healthy diets. The Mediterranean diet is one of the best known. This and other similar diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, fish and healthy fats, while limiting red meat, sugar and salt.
“The eating habits of people in the countries with the healthiest populations include a lot of whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and very little meat compared to a traditional American diet,” adds Dr. Cook.
To improve the health benefits of your family’s meals, follow these tips:
Grilling, pan-searing, poaching, roasting, steaming and stir-frying are all good cooking methods, along with using olive oil.
Grilling encourages the animal fat to run out of the meat, creating a leaner dish overall.
Mix one part olive or canola oil in a clean plant mister with two parts water. Use this spray to lubricate nonstick pans instead of butter or large amounts of oil.
Dredge items (which can include fish and vegetables) in beaten egg white, then place in a baggie full of breadcrumbs or panko and shake. Bake the items on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. A quick spritz of a healthy 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. Do this 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 for lunch and dinner. Add nuts or seeds for crunch and healthy fatty acids.
For more information about healthy eating, watch the video on Food as Medicine.