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At one time, low-fat diets were believed to be healthy. Now, findings from hundreds of studies have revealed that it’s not the amount of fat; it’s the type of fat that’s most important.
You need an adequate amount of fat—about 45 to 75 grams per day on average—in your diet to help you absorb nutrients, increase your sense of fullness at meals, and promote optimal health and well-being. Including healthy fats as part of a balanced meal helps provide you with a complete nutrition package. Here, we’ll differentiate between types of healthy fats: polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fats (MUFAs).
- PUFAs are unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soy, and cottonseed. Omega-3 fatty acids are a special type of PUFAs linked with a range of health benefits, including heart and brain health.
- MUFAs are unsaturated fats found in avocados, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, olives, and vegetable oils, such as canola, olive, peanut, sunflower, and sesame. (Many plant foods contain both PUFAs and MUFAs.)
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Steer Toward Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats
Evidence suggests that if you cut down on unhealthful fats—trans fats found in partially hydrogenated oils, and saturated fats found in fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, including butter—and replace them with PUFAs and MUFAs, you can cut your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes while still meeting your complete nutrition needs.
For cooking, choose vegetable fats that are high in PUFAs and MUFAs. Look for salad dressings and margarine spreads for breads and baking that are low in saturated fat and rich in PUFAs and MUFAs. Use liquid vegetable oils as much as possible, with special attention to extra-virgin olive oil (see below).
However, even though plant-sourced fats contain valuable nutrients, they are high in calories. One tablespoon of oil contains 120 calories, so, to avoid weight gain, foods high in fat need to be consumed in moderation. In fact, food pyramids place healthy fats at the very top to indicate that they should be used sparingly.
The Olive Oil Advantage
Your No. 1 oil in the kitchen should be extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), the least refined vegetable oil commonly available. EVOO is high in MUFAs, and its original bioactive compounds are intact, since it is cold-pressed or ex-peller-pressed. (Refined oils have undergone processes that reduce some of their nutri-ents.)
EVOO consumption has been linked with disease protection, including breast cancer protection, a higher degree of insulin sensitivity, and better heart health.
Contrary to popular opinion, you can cook with EVOO in many methods of food preparation. While EVOO (and other unrefined oils) has a lower smoke point than refined oils, and it does break down at extremely high cooking temperatures, it works well in most typical cooking applications, such as sautéing, grilling, roasting, and baking.
You also can blend EVOO with your favorite vinegar and herbs and drizzle it over salad greens for a great start to healthy dinners.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.