For the past few decades, fat has been considered a "four-letter" word. Many people associate weight gain or heart problems with eating high-fat foods. But fat doesn't deserve the bad reputation it's been given. Dietary fat is a vital nutrient, and if you want to reap the benefits, it's important to get the right balance of healthy fats. So, what are healthy fats exactly?
When looking at food labels, you typically see four types of fats: saturated, trans fat, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Saturated and trans fats tend to raise LDL cholesterol — the type you want to keep low. But unsaturated fats raise your HDL cholesterol, which is considered "good" cholesterol.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people replace saturated and trans fats, commonly found in red meat, dairy and processed foods, with unsaturated fats, found in some cold-pressed, organic oils, raw nuts, oily fish and some beans and legumes. These are some of the benefits of healthy dietary fats:
Polyunsaturated fats also provide essential fatty acids, including omega-3s and omega-6s, that, according to the AHA, your body can't produce on its own.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids provide benefits to your heart. But while omega-3s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-6s are pro-inflammatory and the ratio is important to balance healthy levels of inflammation. The standard American diet has been shown to contain high levels of inflammatory omega-6s, which are found in refined plant oils including corn oil and safflower oil, both of which are commonly used in processed foods. On the other hand, this diet tends to be deficient in omega-3s, which are found in fish, nuts and seeds.
Research in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests that having too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 can lead to an inflammatory response within the body. Similarly, research published in Open Heart found that keeping a lower ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s can help reduce this response and benefit the heart. Researchers found an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4:1 or less provided the most anti-inflammatory benefits.
The best way to add omega-3s to your diet is to eat more oily fish, such as wild salmon, sardines or mackerel, which are some of the best sources of these essential fatty acids. Grass-fed meat, pasture-raised eggs and poultry are also dietary sources. Aim to eat three to four servings of oily fish per week. If that's a challenge, add a high-quality omega-3 supplement to your diet. If you follow a plant-based diet or don't eat fish, you can get one of the three omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid, from raw walnuts, flax seeds, cruciferous vegetables or hemp hearts, among others.
So, what does this look like in a typical week? Try these tips to incorporating healthier dietary fats into your diet:
If you struggle to get enough omega-3s through diet alone, you can always take a high quality supplement.
"Fats" are not a word we need to fear and definitely not a dietary source we should avoid when it comes to optimal health. Knowing the sources of healthy fats, appropriate substitutions and how you can incorporate them into your diet are great ways to boost your intake of this essential nutrient.