After years of being told to limit fat in your diet, now there’s news that fat — as long as it’s the healthy kind — is part of good nutrition.
By Diana RodriguezMedically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
Finally, there’s the news we’ve all been waiting for when it comes to the right diet: Eat more fat. But how can that possibly be true — or healthy? The recent recommendations to focus more on fat in the diet for better nutrition don’t apply to all fats. Only the “good” fats are recommended to boost health.
Fat in the Diet: What Is Healthy Fat?
Fats are now divided up as either good or bad. “We speak about fats differently now than we used to,” says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, LD, a nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Ky. “They all used to be clumped together, and now we separate them out. We steer clear of the saturated and the trans fats, which are unhealthy, and lean toward the other ones.”
The recommendations about ensuring adequate daily fat intake only pertain to the healthy fats. Experts, in other words, are not advocating eating more fried foods or desserts. “The unsaturated fats are the kind that are better for us,” says Meyerowitz. Unsaturated fats, both the mono- and poly-unsaturated kinds, include fats like the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
Despite what’s been previously preached, fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Without it, Americans tend to put on more weight. During the 1960s, before the low-fat diet craze, people got about 45 percent of their daily calories from fat. Back then, only about 13 percent of Americans were obese.
Today, with about 34 percent of the U.S. population defined as obese, only about 33 percent of our daily calories come from fat. Why the discrepancy? One possible reason is that people are exchanging fats for even more unhealthy alternatives, like calorie-rich, sugar-laden carbohydrates.
There’s actually no proof that restricting fats in the diet improves weight loss or reduces heart disease risk. A major study by the Women’s Health Initiative found no health benefit in women who followed a low-fat diet over those who didn’t restrict their fats. And a Nurses’ Health Study found no improvement in heart health or weight loss, probably because they were cutting out the protective good fats as well as bad fats.
The current recommendation is between three and nine servings of fats each day; most of these should come from good fats, with very little saturated fat and ideally no trans fat.
Fat in the Diet: Why Good Fats Are Good for the Body
Good fats are important for the body in a variety of ways, improved heart health among them, says Meyerowitz. And they’re such an important part of a healthy diet because your body doesn’t make essential fatty acids, some of the most important fats. To get what your body needs for good heart and brain health, you have to eat them. Change the way that you cook, says Meyerowitz, and use healthy vegetable oils. Snack on nuts, add avocados to salads and sandwiches, and dress up dishes with olives.
Fat in the Diet: Finding Good Fats
Foods with the good fats that can help boost your health include:
Fish and other seafood, especially salmon and other fatty fish
Walnuts, pecans, and almonds
Vegetable oils like canola, olive, soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower
Sesame, pumpkin, and other seeds
Fat in the Diet: The Bottom Line on Fats
While some fats should be limited (saturated) or avoided altogether (trans fats), don’t think of fat as a dirty word, and don’t deprive yourself of foods that are both healthy and delicious. Feed your body the good fats that it craves — your heart and brain need fat to function.