Fat. So many of us have spent a lifetime dreading that little word that we’ve missed the big headlines: Not only is fat an essential nutrient, we should embrace it as a core part of our eating plan. With research now focusing on the damage sugar causes and the role of inflammation in chronic disease, healthy fats are emerging as a neglected superhero. Not only do they provide essential nutrients, but they also digest slowly, so we feel satisfied for a long time.
But knowing how much fat to eat—and what kind—can be tricky. It doesn’t help that guidelines are so vague. Your Paleo diet pal consuming 35 percent of her daily calories from fat and your Weight Watchers friend eating just 20 percent would both be pronounced healthy. The Institute of Medicine, the federal agency for health policy, says that broad a range of fats can be good for you.
Of course, you need to pay attention to portion size. Even the healthiest fats can wreak caloric havoc on dieters who are not mindful of the number of servings they’re consuming.
Still, the latest evidence suggests that we should be reveling in fats, not shunning them. A new study from Tufts University finds that replacing carbohydrates or saturated fat (such as those found in meat and cheese) with unsaturated fats (like those found in nuts and fish) lowers blood sugar and insulin levels. The study, which analyzed more than a hundred feeding trials, indicates that upping the intake of healthy fats can prevent or help manage Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers are also discovering that healthy fats play a big role in brain function and help us watch our weight. New evidence from Italian researchers finds that a diet higher in saturated fat makes it harder for the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that helps monitor hunger, to signal that it’s time to stop eating. And here’s some encouragement for dieters: Rats who ate fish oil were more likely to stick with a healthy eating plan, compared to those who ate lard.
Try our five-day approach to making friends with fats:
Monday: Go nuts at the supermarket. Experts say you’re much more likely to eat well when you’ve stocked up on the healthiest choices, and “the easiest foods to have in the house to help us increase our intake of healthy fats are any kind of nuts,” says Kim Larson, a registered dietician in Seattle and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Seeds, like flaxseeds and sunflower seeds, nut butters and vegetable oils like canola, safflower, sunflower and extra-virgin olive oil, should also be on your list. “Skip the store-bought salad dressing and make your own with healthy vegetable oils,” she says. “That’s a good way to deliver healthy fat that helps increase the absorption of the nutrients in salad ingredients.” Avocados and hummus are also good choices. (Hummus is made with tahini, which contains the healthy fats in sesame seeds.)
While you’re putting your new groceries away, throw out as many sources of unhealthy transfats lurking in your home as you can find, including sticks of margarine and any foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings. (Packaged baked goods, frozen french fries and frozen pizzas are among the biggest culprits.)
Tuesday: Go green. By now, the avocado you bought yesterday should be squishy enough for you to pour some love into your grateful arteries. A recent study from Penn State University found that adding avocado to your daily diet helps lower bad cholesterol. Working with a sample of 45 healthy, overweight adults, researchers discovered that those eating a moderate-fat diet that included Hass avocados (the smaller ones with the bumpy skin) for five weeks saw their bad cholesterol fall by 13.5 mg/dL. Those eating a moderate-fat diet with no avocado got a decrease of just 8.3 mg/dL and those on a low-fat diet saw a reduction of only 7.4 mg/dL.
Wednesday: Consider a hump day splurge. If the food police—and the cardiologists—had their way, Americans would consume far less saturated fats than we do now. Frankly, we just crave it sometimes. Larson says you can manage saturated-fat splurges with a few healthy boundaries, like a reasonable four-ounce portion of lean tenderloin or flank steak instead of a massive rib eye. She treats full fat cheese as a treat, “so occasionally having that Brie or triple crème on crackers is fine. The portion size is really what makes the difference. Eat slowly, and savor every bite.” A one-ounce serving of cheese looks like two domino-sized slices of Brie, for example.
Thursday: Try a meatless dinner. Analyzing the diets of 5,000 people, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that people who munched nuts in place of red meat, processed meat, eggs or refined grains for at least three meals a week were healthier. Those who ate at least five servings of nuts per week had significantly lower levels of inflammation, which is linked to health woes ranging from heart disease and diabetes to arthritis and insomnia. They compared nut consumption with three chemicals known as biomarkers for inflammation in blood: C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin 6 (IL6) and also tumor necrosis factor receptor 2 (TNFR2).
People who ate at least five servings of nuts had less CRP and IL6 than non-nut eaters, after factoring in age, medical history and lifestyle. Levels of CRP and IL6 were even lower in those who munched nuts in place of other proteins or refined grains for at least three meals a week.
”Replacing carbohydrates or saturated fat with unsaturated fats lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, and can help manage Type 2 diabetes.”
Friday: Make it a fishy one. We’ve all read the stories recommending eating more seafood brimming with healthy oils, but most of America isn’t ready to swim with the fishes: Larson says that between 80 to 90 percent of Americans don’t eat the recommended two servings per week. “I like to tell clients to eat a variety of fish so they don’t get tired of it, and learn to cook it in easy, simple, delicious ways,” she says. “It’s economical, and it cooks fast. If people do not like fish I recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement [supplies EPA and DHA] because we simply can’t get enough in our diet if we don’t take advantage of the marine sources—especially salmon, mackerel, trout, tuna, sardines and herring. A supplement should be looked upon as the last resort—eating fish is much better for us.”