In fact, we need a little oil in our diets to maintain our health. The problem with eating fats comes when we take in too much, and when we eat the wrong kinds of fats. In general, most of us get enough oils in the foods we eat every day, like nuts, fish, cooking oils and salad dressings. And even though many of these may be heart-healthy “good” fats, overindulging can still cause weight gain. So how much is the right daily amount – and what kinds of fats should you focus on?
Watch What You Say
Dietary fats have nutritional value and are a natural part of whole foods. Fats come in two forms, liquid and solid – most plant-based fats arrive as liquid oils, and most animal-based fats are solid. The beauty of today’s lifestyle is that we have so many choices of what kind of oils to put in our pantry and serve our family. Those choices can also be confusing.
The good and the bad
Here’s a quick list of why fat is an important part of a healthy diet:
But not all types of fat are created equally due to their composition of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. Huh?
- It stores energy in our body
- It provides insulation
- It aids in building cell membranes and body structure
- Fats contain essential fatty acids like alpha-linolenic (an omega-3 fatty acid also called ALA) and linoleic (an omega-6 fatty acid also called LA) plus EPA and DHA – all of which work together to keep our bodies and minds working well
- Fats carry vitamins through our bodies, especially fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
- Fat adds flavor to food and gives us a feeling of being satisfied by what we ate
- Liquid at room temperature
- Can lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and maintain HDL (good cholesterol) if used in place of saturated fats
- Contain Oleic acid (that’s good)
- Found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, meats and whole milk
- Liquid at room temperature
- Large intakes may increase the risk for some types of cancer
- Contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which our bodies cannot make, yet which are essential for cardiovascular health, controlling inflammation, and other health issues
- Found in safflower, sesame, corn, cottonseed and soybean oils
Hydrogenated and trans-fats
- Solid or semi-solid at room temperature
- May allow for better retention of Omega-3 fatty acids
- Found in animal fats in meat, dairy and eggs
- Found in some plant sources including cocoa butter, coconut, palm and palm kernel oils
- Non-essential fats that increase risk of coronary heart disease
- Increase LDL and HDL
- Found in fast foods, snack foods, many baked goods to extend shelf life
How much is too much?
To make it simpler to visualize, look at this list of the small amount of oils that we’re supposed to limit ourselves to each day. The chart is for people who get less than 30 minutes/day of moderate physical activity beyond normal activities:
Dietary guidelines for Americans recommend that 15-25% of our total daily calories should come from monounsaturated fats – that’s about 33-55 grams or 6.5-11 teaspoons in a typical adult diet. Monounsaturated fat, often called “good fat” can help to lower total and LDL cholesterol.
Saturated fats and other unhealthy fats should be limited to 10% of total daily calories, about 22 grams or 4.5 teaspoons for adults (7%/16 grams/3 teaspoons if you have heart disease).
To put it in perspective, here’s an idea of where those oily amounts are coming from in our everyday diets:
Too many choices!
There seems to always be a darling of the fat world in every new health article. Olive oil is touted for its heart-healthy properties (it’s chock full of monounsaturated fat). Right now, there’s a lot of chatter about coconut oil. The argument for coconut oil is that even though it’s a saturated fat, its main fat source is lauric acid – a fatty acid which provides the right ratio of both good cholesterol (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol – which is said to deliver a natural boost of energy without being stored as fat. Research, however, remains inconclusive about that.
But here’s the simple tip: In general, stay away from fats that turn solid at room temperature. That includes fats from animals. And reduce your intake of added fats – both personally and when you cook for others.
When you do buy oils, here are some smart choices:
Olive Oil: Use cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil on salads and in cold dishes; use virgin olive oil for low-temperature cooking.
Safflower Oil: Nearly flavorless, monounsaturated safflower oil has a high smoke point and is great for stir-fries.
Canola Oil: With a neutral flavor and high smoke point, look for non-GMO, organic canola oil and use it for high-heat cooking.
Coconut Oil: Another high smoke point oil, coconut oil gives foods a rich, nutty, sweet coconut flavor and aroma.
Above all, no matter how “good” a fat may be for you, it’s still a fat. And fat begets fat. Limit all foods with high fat content and you and your family will face a healthier future.
Where’s Your Fat At?
That low-fat diet you and your friends always talk about may not be doing your grades any good. Fat is an important source of energy and helps your body and brain function efficiently as you grow. But the key to fats is to get them from healthy sources. And to moderate the amounts you take in, even of healthy fats.
Here’s what nutrition experts say is the right amount of fats for teens to take in each day:
- Girls 14-18 years old: 5 teaspoons
- Boys 14-18 years old: 6 teaspoons
Because it’s hard to measure the fat in foods in terms of teaspoons, think of it in percentages. The labels on foods will help with that. Healthy teenage girls should eat about 1,800 calories a day – with 25% of those calories coming from healthy fats. Teenage boys with a daily calorie intake of about 2,200 should also consume 25% of the calories as fat.
Since labels don’t always show the percentage of fat in a food, you can do the math for yourself. Divide the number of calories from fat by the number of total calories in the food, and multiply by 100
Fabulous fats vs. not so much
Unsaturated fats are the “good” fats to focus your 25% on. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are in this group. The foods containing these fats include olive oil, canola oil, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. So instead of a bag of chips or crackers, grab a handful (about an ounce) of almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pecans or macadamias. You’ll feel full longer, get a shot of protein, and not clog your heart.
Unhealthy fats are listed as saturated fats or trans fats. If you can’t find a label, remember this: Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products (they’re usually solid at room temperature, like bacon fat) and trans-fats are primarily found in fried foods, and packaged breads, crackers, muffins and cookies. In short, limit how much meat and full-fat dairy foods you eat and cut way back on fried foods and mass-produced baked goods that contain manmade, chemically altered fats.
How to do it:
- Have fun seasoning and roasting your favorite nuts at home. Create a recipe for your own unique, hand-made, artisanal snack. Mix in your favorite herbs, pepper and just a touch of salt.
- Instead of spreading mayo or butter on your sandwich, top it with ¼ of an avocado instead (mash it with a touch of lemon juice first to keep it bright green).
- Substitute olive oil or canola oil and cracked pepper and a sprinkle of sea salt for butter on toast. You’ll love it!
- Use olive oil and vinegar as salad dressing instead of creamy bottled stuff.
Because so many foods already contain fat and oils, the first step in controlling your fat intake is to NOT add more oil and fat to your meals. At a restaurant, the kitchen has already used plenty of oil to sauté, bake, broil and roast, so you might want to avoid slathering the butter onto your bread. And if you do choose to have a burger – loaded with saturated fat – turn down the fries with that. See the puddles of oil on that pizza? It’ll still taste great if you blot them off with a clean napkin before you dig in.
Look for our delicious home-roasted nut recipe and start getting creative with your fats.