Whole grains. Check.
Fruits and leafy greens. Check and check.
These nutritious staples should be at the top of our grocery lists, but some of us may be leaving out a key nutrient: healthy fats.
“Especially for those of us who went through the 1980s, everything was fat-free,” said Jessica Corwin, RDN, a dietitian with Corewell Health’s Women’s Health and Wellness Center.
“Fats are essential to our body for so many different functions—whether it’s absorbing our vitamins, fighting off inflammation, heart and brain health, or making our skin and nails feel good,” she said.
She recommends swapping out saturated and trans fats—found in red meats and many processed foods—for good-for-you fats like olive oil, walnuts, seeds (hemp, chia, pumpkin, sunflower and flax), walnuts, fatty fish, olives and avocados, to name a few.
Incorporating healthy fats into our diet not only helps us maintain a healthy weight but offers medical benefits, said Wendy Miller, MD, part of a multidisciplinary team at Corewell Health in Southeast Michigan’s Weight Control Centers.
Healthy fats improve blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, control blood-sugar levels and can even lower blood pressure.
“All these things lower a person’s risk for developing heart disease,” Dr. Miller said.
Recent research links healthy fats to gut health as well. They have been shown to maintain the lining of the gut and benefit the microbiome, the bacteria that help us digest food and build immunity.
“Having a healthy microbiome has been associated with a healthier weight, less risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Miller said.
What’s more, adding healthy fats can help with nutrition absorption, Corwin said. Like Batman and Robin, healthy fats paired with fruits, vegetables or whole grains pack a powerful punch.
Conversely, pairing a salad with fat-free dressing will not only leave you hungry but prevent nutrients from being absorbed.
Instead, Corwin recommends creative pairings: add olive to roasted broccoli; top oatmeal with flax seeds or peanut butter instead of brown sugar; mix avocado into a morning smoothie or spread it on toast; coat chicken or fish with ground walnuts or pecans.
“That’s going to make the meal so much more satisfying,” Corwin said.
She suggests adding a healthy fat to meals or snacks throughout the day. That increase in satiety reduces hunger pangs that can lead to overeating or grabbing that late-afternoon candy bar.
That can represent a change for some patients, Dr. Miller said.
Many Americans in the past have gone on a low-fat diet, replacing fat with refined and processed carbohydrates, such as white bread, potatoes, crackers and pasta.
“That has resulted in weight gain for a lot of people,” Dr. Miller said. She recommends patients replace unhealthy saturated and trans fats with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.
While salmon, nuts, avocado and oils tend to be higher in calories than other macronutrients, “these types of foods can also help you feel fuller than other refined carbohydrates and prevent spikes in blood sugar levels,” Miller said.
After a busy day at work or school, many of us—and our kids—often head straight to the pantry or refrigerator. It’s important to focus on incorporating a variety of healthy foods.
For busy families, combining vegetables, fruits and healthy fats for grab-and-go snacks can stave off hunger pangs and help us stay healthy, Corwin said.
She often greets her own children with apple slices and peanut butter, vegetables and hummus, string cheese and nuts, yogurt with fruit and chia-seed “sprinkles,” roasted chickpeas, for example.
Having these healthy snacks on hand pays off, in both the short and long term.
“Our body is being nourished and satisfied by getting in those healthy fats throughout the day,” Corwin said.
Can you have too much of a good thing when it comes to healthy fats? As with most things, moderation matters.
“Our focus is not necessarily to restrict the amount of healthy fats but to eat them in moderation with most of your meals,” Dr. Miller said.
For example, go for a small handful of almonds, or about 1/4 cup.
For those consuming about 1,500 calories per day, Corwin recommends shooting for 40 to 50 grams of healthy fats per day, or 10 to 20 grams of healthy fats per meal. To get an idea of what that might look like, one quarter cup avocado is 8 grams of fat; 1 tablespoon olive oil is 14 grams; 3 ounces of salmon contains 6 grams fat; and 1 tablespoon of flax seeds is 4 grams of fat.
Tiny avocados can be an ideal serving size. For fatty fish like salmon, mackerel or herring, she recommends a portion about the size of a deck of cards, twice per week.
With a little creativity, incorporating healthy fats can help people feel full and help keep “lousy LDL cholesterol” at bay, Corwin said.
It’s a message that both Corwin and Dr. Miller share with patients looking for ways to eat healthier, feel better and live longer.
“The tide is turning, but we definitely need to keep promoting this message,” Dr. Miller said. “A lot of Americans may not be aware of how beneficial it is to have healthy fats in their diets on a regular basis.”