If you’ve been trying to keep all fats out of your diet in the name of your health, you aren’t alone. Fat has gotten quite a bad rep over the years, but not all fats are created equally — some actually play a pivotal role in our overall health.
Registered holistic nutritionist and massage therapist Christal Sczebel at Pure & Simple Nutritional Consulting and Massage Therapy explains that dietary fats are essential in the diet and a vital macronutrient. However, she does confirm that there are fats “that should be consumed more, some that should be consumed less and others that should be left alone altogether.” So how do you know which ones to enjoy and which ones to avoid? “To simplify, there are three main types of dietary fats: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats,” explains Sczebel. “Without getting too technical, the terms ‘saturated’ and ‘unsaturated’ refer to the amount of hydrogen atoms in the fatty acid. Saturated fats are full of the maximum hydrogen atoms, whereas unsaturated fats are not. Trans fats have been manually ‘hydrogenated’ through a chemical process, which turns them from unsaturated to saturated.”
So which fats are good and which are bad?
“The ‘bad’ fats are the saturated fats, as they raise cholesterol levels in the body, which can contribute to arterial plaque buildup and ultimately heart disease,” says Sczebel. “These fats are found in whole-fat dairy, meats, some oils, and are solid when at room temperature. Saturated fats need not be avoided completely, but they should be eaten in moderation. It is recommended that saturated fat intake remain less than 20 grams per day.”
Then there are the “very bad” fats — the trans fats. “Trans fats are primarily used to give processed foods a longer shelf life,” explains Sczebel. These fats “increase cholesterol levels in the body and have been directly linked to increased risk of coronary artery disease. There is also ample research that shows links between trans fats and cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and obesity.”
So all that talk about there being bad fats is true. But you don’t need to swear off fats altogether, because there are “good fats” — the unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats “actually help lower cholesterol in the body and reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Sczebel. “They help to maintain the health of our skin, hair and nails. They support nervous system function and proper brain growth and development. Unsaturated fats also help to reduce inflammation in the body and therefore reduce symptoms of pain from arthritis and other inflammatory disorders.” And thanks to sources of unsaturated fats such as those listed below, it’s easy (and tasty!) to get these excellent health benefits.
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“The avocado is a superfood,” says Sczebel, and “it is full of cancer-fighting antioxidants.” Plus, because this fruit has such a subtle taste, it can be enhanced with a little sea salt and citrus, and then used as a sandwich spread, salad topping, the base for a tasty guacamole or even hidden in a healthy dessert such as a key lime tart.
Sczebel explains, “Nut butters are a great source of unsaturated fats and also a source of protein, which make them a great snack or addition to a main meal.” Look for nut butters that are free of added oil, sugar and salt — or better yet, whip up your own. Sczebel enjoys her almond or peanut butter “as a dip for an apple, spread over protein pancakes, mixed in with a smoothie, drizzled over a healthy dessert or really just a simple spoonful right out of the jar” every day.
This hearty, heart-healthy fish “is a great source of healthy fats and protein,” says Sczebel. It also provides ample amounts of the essential fatty acid, omega-3, which supports nervous system function and healthy skin. Sczebel’s tip for working it into your diet? Sprinkle salmon with a squeeze of lemon, a dollop of Dijon mustard, a drizzle of honey and some fresh dill, and then toss it on the grill and enjoy.
These salty, delicious, little round wonders are packed with healthy unsaturated fats and antioxidants, explains Sczebel. They’re great when tossed into salads, blended into a tapenade or simply enjoyed as a convenient snack.
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Making smart choices when it comes to fat
“The amount of fat needed each day varies from person to person, but a good guideline is to consume around 25–35 per cent of your total daily calories in fats,” advises Sczebel. Her advice for getting the right fats is to stay away from processed foods and to adopt a “clean eating” way of living. She suggests aiming to consume foods in their most natural states and to limit consumption of red meat and full-fat dairy, such as cream and butter, to a couple of times a week or less. Choose such lean meats as chicken breast, turkey breast and fish, and look for low-fat or fat-free dairy products free of added sugars. And of course, enjoy the nutritious, unsaturated fats mentioned here every day.