After a lifetime of being told not to eat fatty foods, you might be surprised to know that fats (at least some of them) are good for you. The American Heart Association recommends that you get 20-35% of your total caloric intake from fats. Fat is a source of “fatty acids”; these provide fuel for your body and allow your body to absorb certain vitamins. It’s which fats you eat that determine whether or not your diet is healthy.
You’ve probably heard that eating fish is good for you, but do you know why? It’s because they contain special fats known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). These “good fats” are found not only in cold-water fish like salmon, but also in leafy green vegetables like spinach, some nuts, and certain oils like flaxseed.
WHY ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS ARE GOOD FOR YOU
EFAs are good for the reduction of levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides; they also may counteract blood clotting. This makes them a good way to prevent coronary artery disease and strokes. Essential fatty acids as seen in fish are “polyunsaturated”, which differs in its chemical structure from other fats. Animal fats, such as lard and beef tallow, are “saturated”, while shortening and some margarines and vegetable oils used in cooking contain “trans fats”.
Most of your dietary intake of fat should be of the unsaturated kind (EFAs). Why? Your body isn’t geared to manufacture EFAs and has to get them from food, but it produces its own saturated fats. Trans fats, on the other hand, have no known health benefit and are risky to the point that they are slowly being reduced or eliminated from many foods. Trans fats not only increase bad cholesterol, but they lower good cholesterol as well.
Fats that you ingest are, in part, used to make cell walls. Saturated and Trans fats cause the membranes of blood cells to be rigid, which makes them “sticky” when traveling through arteries. Unsaturated fats make the cell wall flexible, or “slippery” enough to easily traverse the circulation. Blood cells in a diet high in saturated and trans fats have a tendency to stick together, causing a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Essential (polyunsaturated) fatty acids also calm down inflammatory responses in your body, something very beneficial for those with arthritis and similar conditions.
A healthy distribution of fats for an 1800 calorie diet:
• Total fat: 40-70 grams (mostly unsaturated)
• Saturated fat: less than 14 grams
• Trans fat: 0-2 grams
“ZERO GRAMS TRANS FAT”
An aside about Trans fat food labeling: Foods marked as containing “0 Trans Fat” are legally allowed to have as much as 0.5 grams per serving. This means that eating a lot of “0 trans fat” potato chips or baked goods may actually cause you to eat more trans fat than is safe. Just 4 servings (2 grams trans fat) of those cookies may take you over the acceptable limit.
THE HEALTHY FAT DIET
So how can you eliminate bad fats from your diet? Follow these guidelines:
• Eat 2 servings of fish/week. Salmon, mackerel, and other cold-water fish are best.
• Stay away from high-fat foods like dairy (or choose the lower-fat versions).
• Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
• Use healthy oils like olive, canola, and flaxseed when cooking.
• Eat nuts like walnuts and almonds.
• Avoid fast foods cooked in trans fat oils.
• Avoid processed foods when possible.
In a future article, we’ll go into even more detail about essential fatty acids. We’ll discuss the difference between Omega-3 and Omega-6, and how our diet has changed in the past century (to our detriment).
Joe Alton, M.D.