"Low-fat" and "no-fat" might be on their way out as buzzwords of the nutrition industry. While keeping the amount of fat in your diet in check, picking the right kind of fats in limited amounts can be a satisfying way to keep your heart healthy.
In fact, fat is necessary for many functions of your body, such as absorbing fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K.
Fats are also needed for healthy skin and proper brain function, says Sonja Max, a Bellingham-based registered dietician. And small amounts of nuts, such as walnuts, almonds or pumpkin seeds, as well as chia and flax seeds, can help lower cholesterol and provide needed nutrients.
The key is eating the kinds of fat that are beneficial while avoiding the ones that pack on the pounds and clog your arteries.
WHICH FATS SHOULD YOU EAT?
Here's a breakdown of fats that can be found in food, from Max's book, "Food User Manual," which she wrote with naturopathic doctor Ryan Bradley.
Healthy fats include omega-3 fats found in coldwater fish, such as salmon and trout, as well in as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Also healthy are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
Fats that should be limited include saturated fats found in cheese, milk, butter, red meat, poultry, coconut oil and palm oil.
Fats that should be excluded from a daily diet include hydrogenated oil and transfats found in margarine, shortening, crackers, cookies, prepared foods and fried foods.
DO VEGETABLES HAVE FAT?
Yes, they do. Max says the safest way to make sure you're getting the right plants is to eat vegetables, mainly leafy greens like spinach and kale, which contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy fat.
Beans, including black, pinto and garbanzos, as well as whole grains, have similar amounts of healthy fats. In fact, 3 percent of the calories from one-third cup of black beans and one cup of steamed spinach come from fat, mainly alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.
Olives and avocados contain monounsaturated fats, which can help lower blood cholesterol if used in place of saturated fats, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"I generally tell patients that any fat from a whole, unprocessed plant is good," Max says. "If you're eating beans and whole grains, you're doing great."
INFLAMMATION AND OMEGAS
Inflammation is a new topic in health and nutrition, and while some fats like omega-3 fatty acids have been found to help decrease inflammation in the body, others, such as omega-6 fatty acids, have been found to increase it.
But the dynamic is more complicated than that, Max says. Omega-6 fatty acids are actually healthy for the body in small amounts, when in a proper ratio to the amount of omega-3s consumed, she says. But when you consume large amounts of omega-6 fats - from processed foods and oils like corn, soy and safflower oil - the body produces inflammation in response to the imbalance.
New research is finding that inflammation is connected to serious illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and periodontal disease.
Adding foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including coldwater fish and flaxseed oil, can help stave off inflammation, when balanced with small quantities of omega-6 fatty acids. Avoiding highly processed foods and fast foods cooked in oils can help limit your intake of omega-6s.
DON'T GO GOOD-FAT CRAZY
Just because almonds and walnuts contain unsaturated fats doesn't mean you can munch on canisters of them and not feel the impact at your waist. Why? Because nuts and seeds are dense in calories.
The same goes for most oils, which are concentrated fats from plants. Nuts and seeds, while healthy additions to a diet, should be limited to keep your weight in check, Max says.
The DASH diet plan, created to reduce hypertension in adults, recommends having four to five servings of nuts, seeds and legumes each week. A serving size can be two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds on your morning cereal, a quarter-cup of nuts as a snack, or one teaspoon of olive oil in a serving of salad dressing.
As for non-fat foods, Max says eating highly processed foods that tout themselves as non-fat, such as cookies and crackers, usually mean the fat that normally would have been in the food has been replaced by sugar. So non-fat doesn't necessarily mean "low-calorie," or even "healthy," for people with such illnesses as diabetes.
SALADS AND SAUTES
Max suggests using flaxseed oil as a replacement for vegetable oils in salad dressing as a way to add healthy omega-3s to your diet. It's easier than taking it by the spoonful as a supplement, and it has a mild flavor that blends with most vinegar or citrus juice-based dressings.
But the healthy fats in flaxseed break down when heated, so flaxseed oil is out for the frying pan. Instead, Max recommends grapeseed and rice bran oil, or a plant-based butter substitute, such as Earth Balance, although for most vegetables Max suggests just steaming them, oil-free, until tender.
Flaxseeds and chia seeds are the perfect fat-packed nuggets to add to your diet if you're trying to lose weight, because the seeds are full of fiber, which helps keep you satisfied until your next meal.
"When you start relying on fiber to fill you up, fat and the taste of fat on your tongue becomes less important," she says.
FAT-HEALTHY SALAD DRESSING
Max uses this recipe for Asian Balsamic and Flax Oil Dressing frequently to get omega-3 fatty acid-rich flaxseed oil into her diet:
1/4 cup Barlean's Highest Lignan Flax Oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons tamari
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon grated ginger
1/8 teaspoon red chili flakes
Juice from one lime wedge
Mix ingredients vigorously with a fork, or combine by shaking in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Keeps 2-4 weeks if refrigerated.
Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.