It's pretty common for people to ask, "How do I cut the fat from my diet?" It's far less usual to ask, "How do I get more good fat into my diet?" Nonetheless, the latter question is the smarter one.
There are more misconceptions running around about "good" fat and "bad" fat than you can imagine. Expert opinions seem to be constantly in flux: First eggs were bad, then they were good. First butter was terrible, now margarine is. In short, how much fat we should eat-and which kinds-is the subject of constant debate. But understanding the key role that fats play in our health is an important part of proper nutrition.
Fat comes in three basic categories-saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. There's also a fourth kind of fat known as trans-fat, which is rarely found in nature, but abundant in processed foods.
Conventional wisdom tells us to dump all saturated and trans-fats and load up on vegetable oils, omega-3s, and olive oil. However, even though saturated fat has a terrible reputation, it's not nearly as bad as everyone thinks. It's actually kind of neutral. A paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently questioned the demonization of saturated fat, and in 2010 a major meta-analysis published in the same journal showed that saturated fat consumption had exactly zero correlation with either coronary heart disease, stroke, or healthy cell membranes. While no one is saying you should eat lard out of the jar, the most recent evidence does indicate that we've probably been a little too overzealous in removing every bit of saturated fat from our diets. The real trick is to consume healthy saturated fat from natural, whole-food sources such as eggs and coconut.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom is right on trans-fats-at least the man-made kind. They should be banned from your diet, period. They're found in virtually all packaged foods, cakes, crackers, and most margarines. If you see the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredients, you're looking at a product that contains trans-fats, even if-thanks to a complicated legal loophole-the label says "zero trans-fats."
The exception to the zero-tolerance rule for trans-fats is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is made naturally in the bodies of grass-fed cows, and it actually has anticancer and anti-obesity activity.
Conventional wisdom is also right about monounsaturated fats (also known as omega-9s) and omega-3 fats. The best-known source of monounsaturated fat is olive oil, but it's also found in nuts and avocados. There are three distinct omega-3 fats, two of which (EPA and DHA) are found primarily in cold-water fish such as wild salmon, while the third kind (ALA) is found in plant sources such as flax, hemp, and chia seeds.
Where the conventional advice goes wrong is in the constant admonition to consume more vegetable oils, and here's why. Vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, and canola are loaded with omega-6s. These oils are used in virtually every processed and packaged food on the shelves. During the saturated fat purge, restaurants switched from lard to "healthier" vegetable oils, and they now use these oils almost exclusively for cooking. And this really is a problem.
You see, omega-3s are the "parent" molecule for anti-inflammatory hormones in the body called prostaglandin series 1 and series 3. Omega-6s on the other hand, are the parent molecules for inflammatory hormones called prostaglandin series 2. You actually need a balance of both types for optimal health. The best ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 consumption is 1:1 or thereabouts. The typical western diet, however, has a ratio of about 20:1. That means we're "over funding" our body's inflammation army and "under funding" its anti-inflammatory one.
So while it's great to get more omega-3s in your diet, to get the full benefit, you'll also need to cut back on omega-6s. The goal should be to move your diet as close to the ideal ratio of 1:1 as possible.
Remember: It's not that omega-6s are bad, it's that we consume too many of them. So watch your intake of the usual suspects such as corn oil, safflower oil, canola oil, and soybean oil, and follow the 10 recommendations below to get more omega-3s.
1. Eat sardines. This "health food in a can" is easy to find anywhere, portable, and goes well with so many things. Just empty a can over a green salad and you've got a superb high- protein meal. One 3-oz. can contains 840 mg of combined EPA and DHA.
2. Get tuna in olive oil, not water. While many people buy tuna in water to avoid the fat (and extra calories), avoiding the fat means losing out on some omega-3s. So it's better to get your tuna packed in olive oil. Yes, you will be consuming a few more calories, but olive oil tastes better, preserves more omega-3s, and gives you some heart-healthy monounsaturated fat to boot.
3. Take fish oil supplements. With all the choices available, there's no reason to avoid fish oil. Omega oils come in purified capsules and liquids (so there's no worry of contaminants such as mercury) and offer high absorbability. They come in a variety of delicious flavors, and in fish oil, algae, and flaxseed oil versions-the latter two being ideal for vegetarians.
4. Use extra virgin olive oil only. There are two great things about olive oil: the monounsaturated fat and the olive phenols. Phenols are delicate plant compounds that have extraordinary health benefits. Unfortunately, these compounds can easily be destroyed during processing. Extra virgin olive oil, however, is pressed without the use of harsh chemicals or high heat, so the phenols are preserved.
5. Use real butter on your veggies. Despite what you may have heard, butter is anything but a "bad" fat. Most of the fat found in butter is actually monounsaturated-also found in olive oil and nuts- and even the part that is saturated is no big deal. Try to find organic butter so you don't have to worry about residues from the antibiotics, steroids, and hormones found in factory-farmed cows. My favorite way to use it: Make a huge plate of steamed or stir-fried veggies and flavor them with melted butter and your favorite seasonings.
6. Stop using non-fat yogurt. In fact, stop using non-fat anything. The non-fat versions are invariably loaded with sugar, so all you're doing is eliminating a macronutrient that helps keep you full and satiated. Sure you save a few calories, but it would be much better to save them by cutting out sugar and desserts! Enjoy full-fat or low-fat versions of foods such as yogurt and milk. New research actually shows that dairy fat has excellent health benefits, including improved fertility among women.
7. Eat the whole egg. Egg-white omelets are so 1980s-not to mention completely unnecessary. The yolk of the egg contains great fat, plus important nutrients such as choline (for the brain) and lutein and zeaxanthin (for the eyes). What's more, the whole carotenoid family (beta-carotene) is better absorbed with fat, which is why hard-boiled eggs on a spinach salad makes sense. And bodybuilders know that whole raw eggs are a tremendous source of protein.
8. Try Coconut oil. This superfood used to be out of favor for its saturated fat content, but now even mainstream experts such as Dr. Oz endorse it. Coconut oil contains fatty acids that are both antiviral and antimicrobial, making it great for the immune system. The fats in coconut oil are known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which tend to be burned for energy, as opposed to being stored around your hips. Coconut oil is also one of the best oils for stir-frying, or try mixing it with butter or olive oil for scrambled eggs. You can also add a spoonful to a smoothie-just be aware that it adds an extra 100 calories.
9. Have an avocado snack. I often cut an avocado in half and have it for a snack or mini-meal. It's not as high in calories as you might think — about 200 calories for a whole avocado — and it contains not only monounsaturated fat, but a decent helping of fiber as well.
10. Sprinkle flaxmeal on everything. Ground flaxseed is an ideal way to get more omegas. Just sprinkle some on cooked veggies or a tossed salad, or add to any smoothie. What could be easier?
Omega Swirl Power Breakfast
Try this easy superfood breakfast for a dose of healthy fats in the morning.
- 2 heaping Tbs. Barlean's Forti-Flax (milled organic flaxseed)
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 Tbs. Barlean's Mango Peach Omega Swirl
- Handful of raw nuts (almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans)
- Fresh berries to taste (start with ½ cup)
1. Put milled flaxseed into cereal bowl. Add yogurt and Omega Swirl, and mix with spoon. Add nuts and berries, and stir into yogurt mixture.
Per Serving: 555 cal; 21 g prot; 36 g total fat (8 g sat fat); 40 g carb; 47 mg chol; 12 1 mg sod; 10 g fiber; 20 g sugars
From Barlean's Omega Swirl Recipes, available at www.slideshare.net/barleans/recipe-booklet-swirl. Recipe by Dr. Herb Joiner-Bey.
* Editors' note: To learn more about author Jini Patel Thompson, visit ListenToYourGut.com.