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  • Scripps Health

The secrets of healthy fats

Get the facts about good fats and bad fats

About half of American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This includes cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Poor eating habits and lack of physical activity are largely to blame for this dire trend.

Simply cutting out or reducing fats in your diet is not the answer, however. Rather, it’s the type of fat that you vanish and the type of fat you replace it with that can make a big difference in your diet and overall health, according to the Dietary Guidelines.

“We need fats in our diet for energy and to support cell growth, but some types are healthier than others,” says Samar Rashid, DO, a family medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic Liberty Station.

Good fats

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the majority of fats in your diet should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, better known as the good fats.

“Eat foods containing monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats instead of foods that contain saturated fats and/or trans fats or the bad fats,” Dr. Rashid says.

Monounsaturated fats eaten in moderation can have a beneficial effect on your heart. They can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.

Healthy fats contain high levels of beneficial fatty acids, like alpha lipoic acid (ALAs) and Omega-3s. They can be found in the following foods:

  • Vegetable oils: peanut, canola and especially olive oil

  • Nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and cashews

  • Seeds: sesame, flax, pumpkin and chia

  • Whole olives and avocados

  • Fatty fish: salmon, trout, catfish, trout, herring and mackerel

Bad fats

AHA recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods, cautioning that these fats can raise your “bad” cholesterol (LDL or low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol) and put you at higher risk for heart disease.

Trans fats, meanwhile, raise your bad cholesterol levels and lower your good cholesterol (HDL or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol) levels and increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It is also associated with higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

These fats are found in:

  • Animal products: fatty red meats, poultry skin, tallow and lard

  • High-fat dairy products: milk, cream, full-fat yogurt and cheeses

  • Egg yolks (whites are fat-free)

  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils: shortening and margarine

AHA recommends that adults who would benefit from lowering their bad cholesterol to reduce their intake of trans fat and limit their consumption of saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of total calories.

“You should replace foods high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated and or polyunsaturated fats,” Dr. Rashid says. “This means eating foods made with liquid vegetable oil but not tropical oils. It also means eating fish and nuts. You also might try to replace some of the meat you eat with beans or legumes.”

Eating healthy whole foods and fats the Mediterranean way

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans considers the Mediterranean diet to meet the standards of a healthy eating pattern.

The Mediterranean diet, which US News and World Report named the best overall diet for 2019, emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, fish and healthy fats, while limiting red meat, sugar and salt. It is considered a heart healthy diet that helps reduce the risk of heart disease. It also ranked as the best diet for preventing or controlling diabetes and best plant-based diet.

Evidence shows that regular consumption of healthy amounts (fewer than 30 percent of daily calories) of unsaturated, healthy fish- and vegetable-based fats to lower rates of heart disease, breast cancer, bone disorders and even dementia.

“The eating habits of people in the countries with the healthiest populations include a lot of whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and olive oil, and very little meat compared to a traditional American diet,” says Dr. Rashid.

To improve the health benefits of your family’s meals, try some of the following tips:

Choose fish, poultry and lean meats like pork tenderloin

Prepare them with olive oil or other healthy fat. Grilling, pan-searing, poaching, roasting, steaming and stir-frying are all good methods; grilling encourages the animal fat to run out of the meat, creating a leaner dish overall.

Create your own cooking spray from a healthy vegetable oil

Mix one-part olive or canola oil in a clean plant mister with two parts water. Use this spray to lubricate nonstick pans when you sauté or pan fry, instead of butter or large amounts of oil. The recommended oil intake for a 2,000-calorie daily diet is 27 grams or about five teaspoons per day.

If you crave something crispy, use an oven-bake method

Dredge items (which can include fish and vegetables) in beaten egg white, then place in a baggie full of bread crumbs or panko and shake. Bake the items on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. A quick spritz of your cooking spray will help the food on top brown without adding significant calories.

Add beans, corn meal, brown rice, chopped or grated vegetables to ground meats

Do this to lighten and extend meatballs, burgers, meatloaf and/or chili.

Include mixed vegetables roasted in olive oil

Include a couple of servings of mixed vegetables (roasted in olive oil) or a large salad dressed with a citrus/olive oil in both lunch and dinner. Add nuts or seeds for crunch and healthy fatty acids.

Healthy Life is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information, or for a physician referral, visit or call 1-800-Scripps.

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