When it comes to dietary practices, everyone has an opinion or a new fad “food rule” to follow for “best results.” But what really is the “best way” to eat healthy or to achieve weight loss goals?
My professional philosophy is that eating healthy means simply this: a balanced diet of whole foods, grains, lean proteins, fruits and veggies and healthy fats. I also believe sweet treats have their appropriate place in a sound and functional dietary plan. In summary, it’s about creating healthy diet habits rather than identifying specific food restrictions.
Part of this process begins with knowing the right kinds of foods to eat, filtering out the “.com” recommendations and learning to focus on practical food rules you can easily apply to create balanced living.
A quick Google search of healthy diets literally produces thousands of results and endless commentary on the most ideal approaches; chief among the recommendations is to eat low-fat foods. For years, dietary fat has been demonized as a major contributor to poor health. While some of this persecution of fat is justified – we know saturated fats and trans (hydrogenated oils) do contribute to cardiovascular disease (among other health concerns), not all fats are “bad,” and not all should be avoided or exiled from daily dietary practices.
Let’s review some important fat facts.
Fats provided 9 calories/gram (unlike carbs and protein, which carry only 4 calories/gram). Because of the high caloric value associated with fats, it is important to pay attention to the total calories being consumed for weight control purposes.
Unsaturated (poly and mono) are heart-healthy and quality sources of necessary nutrients.
Fats play critical roles in the processes related to hormone production (via cholesterol), vitamin absorption, and nerve transmission. Fats also insulate and provide cells structure.
The body needs essential fatty acids, which can be derived only from the diet (we don’t produce them within our bodies). These types of fats include omega-3 and omega-6.
In short, fats are important to the overall functioning and sustainability of biological and physiological processes in the human body. Consuming fats is not only necessary, it’s healthy and advisable! A more accurate recommendation to follow may be simply this: Eat a variety of unsaturated fatty acids and minimize sources of saturated and trans fat.
Know the difference
Like carbs and proteins, not all fats are created equal, and it is important to know the difference between a high-calorie source of fat and a high-quality source of fat. The types of fats that should be integrated in to the diet include those from unsaturated sources. An unsaturated fatty acid is typically liquid at room temperature, is somewhat unstable and is susceptible to oxidative damage. Conversely, a saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature, is found in animal products, and is very stable. Lastly, a trans fat is a fat hybrid – it is a saturated fatty acid that has been converted to a saturated fat to increase shelf-life of food products (mainly found in baked goods and processed food items). To date, there is no identifiable health benefit to the consumption of trans fats and it is, therefore, recommended to avoid products that contain them.
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To support nutrition and sustainable health, focus on consuming a reasonable amount of unsaturated fatty acids and limit the others. This does not mean that foods with a higher saturated fat content don’t have a place – they do – but they should not dominate the diet.
Sources of healthy fats
There are two types of unsaturated fatty acids – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated (they each have different chemical structures); both types are essential for heart health and for “good cholesterol” (HDL) support.
Integrating healthy fats into daily diet practices
Depending on a person’s overall goal and the consideration of his/her individual dietary needs, a general guideline to follow when it comes to consuming fats in the diet is less than or equal to 30 percent of calories from fat (with less than 7-10 percent from saturated fat sources). Here are some easy integration tips to boost unsaturated fatty acid consumption.
Add avocado slices to a fresh green salad.
Top oatmeal or low-sugar/high-fiber breakfast cereal with flaxseed and/or chopped walnuts.
Include “fish nights” in weekly menu planning.
Cook with olive oil (or other unsaturated oil of choice) instead of butter.
Switch to 1 percent milk.
Eat nuts as a snack instead of a low-nutrient/high-calorie vending machine option
Use homemade salad dressings based with olive oil
The argument for consuming healthy fats is substantiated by past and current scientific research. This summer is a great time to conduct a personal dietary review and identify areas of strength and areas for opportunity. If you are getting enough sources of healthy fats, wonderful! Keep it up. If not, consider trying a couple of these tricks to boost your intake; your heart depends on it.
Erin Nitschke is a health and human performance educator, NSCA-CPT and ACE Health Coach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.