A nutritious eating plan doesn’t mean cutting out all the fat! If you’re unsure how to get started with your wellness journey, begin by making small changes. It is recommended that 20-35% of your total daily calories come from fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Some examples of healthy fats include avocado, walnuts, olive oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, cashews, peanut/nut butter, and coconut.
What do healthy fats do for our bodies? Better yet, what don’t they do? From slowing down digestion to improving heart health and protecting our skin, fats are important nutrients to include in a healthy diet. They promote healthy brain and nervous system function and help lower cholesterol levels, protect against eye disease, and reduce inflammation in the body.
What Do Healthy Fats Do?
So, let’s dive deeper into how each type of fat affects your body and, a hotly-debated topic, how they affect your cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that may offer health benefits like:
- Promoting normal functions of the brain and nervous system
- Lowering cholesterol levels and supporting heart health
- Protecting against dry eye disease
- Reducing inflammation in the body
There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids. Much of the research done on omega-3s and their effects on human health focuses on three types. Their scientific names (they’re tongue twisters!) relate to their chemical structures. Thus, they are often referred to by three-letter acronyms:
- ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid
- DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid
- EPA, or eicosapentaenois acid
The body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, so you have to get them through the foods you eat. These are known as essential fatty acids. Some foods and beverages are also fortified with omega-3s. For example, eggs, milk, and soy drinks may be fortified with omega-3s. The body can convert the ALA you get from food into DHA and EPA. However, the amount made is very limited, so don’t underestimate the importance of omega-3s!
How Does Fat Affect My Cholesterol Levels?
Cholesterol is necessary for a healthy body, but a high cholesterol blood level is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease, and high levels of LDL cholesterol. The risk continues to increase as blood cholesterol levels elevate. While the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended limiting consumption of dietary cholesterol to 300 mg per day, this recommendation is not included in the updated 2015-2020 edition of the Dietary Guidelines.
This change reflects new research that suggests dietary cholesterol, consumed in moderate amounts, does not affect health risks, including heart disease. This applies to individuals who do not have diabetes. Consuming solid fat (saturated fat), not cholesterol, is what increases heart disease risk for most people. Still, the healthy eating patterns highlighted in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines contain approximately 100-300 mg of cholesterol per day, in keeping with the previous 2010 recommendations.
If you have not paid attention to anything you just read (we won’t be offended), LISTEN UP! Let’s remember what monounsaturated fats do:
- Help develop and maintain your cells
- Help lower your LDL cholesterol levels, which reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke
Increased levels of LDL cholesterol have been linked to a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. So, for all of you who want to lower your LDL levels – start eating more foods that contain monounsaturated fats (we listed them in the first paragraph!). Cook your vegetables and poultry in 2 tbsp of olive oil, snack of a quarter cup of nuts, and add half of an avocado to your morning breakfast or on a salad for lunch. One step at a time!
Omega-3 fatty acids also help to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. For those who are concerned with high cholesterol or triglyceride levels, what can you do? Add more foods that contain essential fatty acids to your daily life! Check out some tips below:
- Prepare foods with olive or avocado oil. Cooking your foods with healthy, high-fat oils is a great way to add fat to your meal without swapping ingredients. Nourishing oils like olive and avocado oils are rich in healthy fats and are a simple way to sneak macronutrients into your dish. Use olive oil in the kitchen to keep your foods from sticking to the pan, add a spoonful to your smoothies, or create a salad dressing!
- Add fish to the weekly lunch and dinner menu. Fatty fish is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish like salmon and mackerel are packed with it! While you don’t have to eat a plate of fish every day, incorporating a few fish-filled meals into your menu is a great way to ensure that you’re getting enough omega-3s.
- Go nuts for snack food, literally. Keep nuts, seeds, coconut, or avocado on hand. You can grab a handful of nuts for a snack on the go! For something different and delicious, look for snack mixes with coconut flakes. Another way to boost fats is to sprinkle Greek yogurt with 1-2 tbsp of seeds.
For more ways to get your daily monounsaturated fats and omega-3s, try some of these delicious recipes:
- Grilled Salmon with Avocado Salsa
- Cilantro Lime Shrimp Tacos
- The Best Grilled Veggies Marinade
- Walnut Vinaigrette Dressing
- Almond Butter Cauliflower Smoothie
- Seed Cookies
- No-Bake Chocolate Chia Energy Bars
From the Dietitian
The following information is generally recommended for healthy individuals or those without chronic diseases that may require a specific diet.
- Increase consumption of minimally-processed, bioactive-rich foods like fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, legumes, whole-grain products, yogurt, and seafood, which are linked to lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity.
- Cheese, milk, eggs, poultry, and unprocessed red meats may be added in moderation.
- Reduce consumption of processed meats and carbohydrate-rich foods high in refined starch, added sugars, trans fat, or sodium.
The main takeaway from this is: whole foods that are prepared with natural ingredients should be beneficial for you! If they don’t contain high amounts of added sugars or salts, that is. So, what about saturated fats? Everyone says to avoid them, but is that true?
The guidance on saturated fat can be complicated. If you’ve ever wondered, “Is saturated fat bad?” the answer isn’t so straightforward. Old nutrition research said saturated fat was bad for your cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk, but newer information suggests that it may have a more neutral effect. The USDA Dietary Guidelines and the AHA do still recommend limiting your intake of saturated fats (found in animal products like beef, lamb, pork, butter, and cheese, as well as fried foods and baked goods) and opting for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats whenever possible.
If you’re interested in adjusting your diet, the YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
–Mattie Lefever, LDN, RDN