Some people try to eliminate fats from their diet altogether. But that's not the answer to obtaining optimal health. In fact, if you're sick of trying tasteless low-fat recipes with some of your favorite foods, you may be relieved to learn that our bodies need nutritious and fatty foods as an essential part of our diet.
To find out why, let's start with a quick summary of the basic types of fat:
Saturated: These are the fats we love, but should hate. They're found in animal products including dairy products and eggs. They are also found in some vegetable oils such as coconut and palm. Saturated fats can make the body produce excess cholesterol and, as a result, are often associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other disorders. These fats are usually solid at room temperature and get even harder when chilled. In general, we're better off without them.
Monounsaturated: These fats are a bit better for you. They're found in almond, peanut, sesame, canola and olive oils and avocados. Monounsaturated fats, especially olive oil, actually help decrease blood cholesterol levels. These fats usually harden at cold temperatures or become cloudy when refrigerated.
Polyunsaturated: These fats are good for you in moderation. They're found in corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils as well as in walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts. Polyunsaturated fats have a long history of being healthy for the heart. These fats are liquid at room temperature and stay liquid when chilled. But be careful in storing them: polyunsaturated oils go rancid more easily than other oils, so keep them refrigerated.
Trans fatty acids: These fats, found in products such as margarine, are made through the process of hydrogenation -- converting polyunsaturated oils into saturated fat. They are harmful substances that can increase cholesterol levels as much as saturated fats do. Trans fatty acids are also found in processed foods such as chips, cookies, prepared salads and anything else made with hydrogenated oils.
Essential fatty acids: EFAs are the best type of fats -- and since your body doesn't make them naturally, you must get them from your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and flaxseed oils. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in beans, nuts, seeds and some vegetable oils including flaxseed, corn, soybean and safflower. In either case, the benefits are immeasurable: EFAs are important for the regulation of cholesterol production, hormonal balance and immune function. They're necessary for healthy skin, hair, nails, mucous membranes, nerves and arteries. An inadequate amount of EFAs can contribute to skin and menstrual disorders, diarrhea and weak nails. EFAs have also been proven to guard against heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Nutritionally essentialHigh-fat diets have been implicated in everything from cardiovascular disease to obesity, from diabetes to cancer. Quality fats and oils, however, are nutritionally essential. The body uses fatty acids to store energy. Also, polyunsaturated fats contain fatty acids that are necessary for synthesizing hormones, making fat-soluble vitamins available to the body, and maintaining the flexibility of cell membranes. Stored fat, as much as we want to get rid of it, provides a source of energy for the body, protects organs and insulates the body to keep it warm.
Nutritionists now know that if you don't get enough good fats in your diet, your body will store fat in order to perform its daily functions. So, if you're trying to lose weight, maintaining a low-fat or fat-free diet can actually defeat the purpose: EFAs are necessary to ensure normal burning of stored fat by muscle tissue. They also help the body burn calories more efficiently.
Mind you, the benefits of fats should not be taken as license to gorge. Getting the right amount of fat in your diet can be a balancing act. Too much and you increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Too little, and infants do not thrive, children do not grow and everyone -- regardless of age -- is unable to absorb and use fat-soluble vitamins that smooth the skin, protect the vision, boost the immune system and keep reproductive organs functioning. The ideal amount: No more than 30% of your total daily calories should come from fat, and definitely no more than 10% should come from saturated fats.
Healthy fat choicesNow that you know more about the difference between good fats and bad ones, the rest is common sense. Choose avocados over potato chips. By eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains and beans, you'll automatically tend toward the healthiest ratio of fats in your diet. If you're going to eat animal products, use low-fat and skim milk dairy products, and eat mostly fish, seafood, skinless poultry and small portions of beef. Use oils sparingly, stick to the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties and choose ones that are unrefined and cold-pressed. To get your EFAs, use flaxseed oil for salad dressing, or drizzle some lightly on steamed vegetables.
When it comes to cooking, be aware that different oils respond better to different temperatures. Some have lower smoking points and are appropriate for sauteeing. Some have unusual flavors and aren't appropriate for baking. Purists say forget about cooking oils altogether since heating oils create harmful trans fatty acids. The solution: cook foods in small amounts of water, and add oil after cooking. Otherwise, follow these guidelines for best results:
- Low-heat cooking: corn, soy, sunflower, safflower, pumpkin seed and olive