Like carbohydrates and protein, fat is a vital macronutrient necessary to support health. Dietary fat helps us absorb key vitamins from food, such as vitamins A, E, D and K, and provides essential fatty acids that we need for our cellular function. However, not all fats are created equal — it is important to be mindful of what types of fats we eat, and what food sources they come from. To take the guesswork out of choosing the right sources of healthful fats, here’s an overview.
Eat the Good Guys
The USDA recommends that our diets derive between 20-35 percent of our total calories from fats. So you don’t need to try to eliminate fat in your diet; rather, focus on consuming sources of healthful fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fats).
Monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fats, also known as the “healthy fats,” are liquid at room temperature, and are generally found in plant-based foods and seafood. When used to replace saturated fat in the diet, studies suggest that MUFAs and PUFAs can reduce the risk of developing heart disease by reducing LDL blood cholesterol levels (“bad” cholesterol).
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs)
MUFAs are generally found in plant-based foods and oils. Our bodies readily make MUFAs, so they are not considered to be an essential set of fatty acids. For this reason, there is no official recommended daily intake. However, research suggests that eating more foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids can improve blood cholesterol levels, and it’s beneficial for improving blood sugar in people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Good sources of MUFAs include:
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, pecans)
- Vegetable oils (olive, peanut, safflower, canola)
If you’re looking for a great recipe with monounsaturated fats, try out Tomato Almond Avocado Salad. It’s a powerful blend of three plant-based foods packed with monounsaturated fats: almonds, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Like MUFAs, PUFAs are found in plant-based foods and oils, but they are also present in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and sea bass. PUFAs include a set of essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fats) that cannot be made in the body, so it is critical that we get them from food. As with MUFAs, swapping saturated fat with PUFAs can also reduce your risk for heart disease.
Good sources of PUFAs include:
- Vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, soybean, flaxseed, grape-seed, canola)
- Nuts (walnuts, pine nuts)
- Seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower)
- Fatty fish (herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna)
Want to try a great recipe packed with PUFAs? How about Crispy Trout with Fennel and Frisee? Trout and pine nuts are both great sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and trout is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids as well.
Focus on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are important, the standard Western diet tends to contain more omega-6 and less omega-3 fats. Experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend we up our omega-3 fat intake by eating two servings of fish and other seafood weekly. Omega-3 fats decrease inflammation and are important for healthy vision and mental function. There are three types of omega-3 fats: EPA, DHA (marine omega-3s) and ALA (plant-based). EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty cold-water fish such as salmon and arctic char. ALA, on the other hand, is present in plant sources like flaxseed and walnuts.
Good sources of omega-3s include:
- Fish (wild salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring)
- Oils (flaxseed, canola)
- Seeds (chia, flaxseed, hemp)
- Nuts (walnuts)
- Grass-fed meats and eggs from grass-fed chickens
Looking to add more omega-3s to your recipe rotation? Give Salmon Tacos a try. Salmon is the queen of healthful fats, and is a great source of monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and especially omega-3s. Avocado is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, with three grams per serving. For even more healthy fats, add Chia Seed Pudding for dessert!
Limit Saturated Fats
Though you should not worry about eating a low-fat diet for overall health, it is important to monitor your saturated fat intake. Dietary Guidelines advise us to limit saturated fats to less than 10 percent of our total fat intake, and to replace saturated fat with MUFAs and PUFAs.
Saturated fat is found mostly in animal products such as red meat and full-fat dairy, and in some plant products like coconut oil. In the U.S., our biggest sources of saturated fat include pizza, cheese and other dairy products, cookies and desserts, and fast food.
Though past studies have suggested that saturated fat increased risk of cardiovascular disease, recent studies question this understanding, and suggest that saturated fat alone is not a contributor to disease risk. Rather, replacing saturated fat can be beneficial to health outcomes if done so with unsaturated fats like MUFAs and PUFAs.
Avoid Trans Fats
Trans fats are primarily found in processed foods made with man-made partially hydrogenated oils, and in small quantities in animal fats. These fats have been found to increase disease risk, and should be avoided altogether. Luckily, in 2015 the Food and Drug Administration banned artificial trans fats from the food supply, and by 2018 all processed foods should be free of trans fats altogether. Although trans fat is technically banned, make sure to read labels when purchasing packaged foods, and avoid the words “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient statement.