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Fatty foods

Are "good" fats really all that good for you?

Is there such a thing as "good" fat? Believe it or not, we actually cannot survive without some fats. They serve a wide variety of purposes, including:

  • Providing a great source of energy
  • Keeping our skin soft
  • Helping the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins

However, it's very easy to overindulge in fatty foods.

As a society that lives on convenient foods, Americans tend to have high-fat diets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults get 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fat, but these savory and satisfying foods often add up to 34 to 40 percent of our calories.         

"All fats are equally high in calories," says Sally Brozek, a registered dietitian at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. "Fats contain two times the amount of calories found in protein or carbohydrates. That's why they are another food group that should be eaten in moderation. However, there are some fats that are healthier than others."

Brozek is referring to what nutritionists call MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids), PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats should be kept on the menu, but in moderation.

Monounsaturated fat

Studies have shown that eating foods rich in MUFAs improve blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. They may also control blood sugar and insulin levels, which is especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes. Foods high in monounsaturated fats include vegetable oils like olive oil and canola oil, which also have a lower percent of saturated fat. Other sources include avocados, peanut butter, as well as many nuts and seeds.

Polyunsaturated fat

Foods rich in PUFAs also have been shown to improve blood cholesterol levels, which decrease your risk of heart disease. They are linked to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes as well. Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include a variety of vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil, as well as fatty fish. Some nuts and seeds like walnuts and sunflower seeds are also great sources.

Omega-3 fatty acids

There is a link between omega-3 fatty acids and heart health. This type of fat appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, protect against irregular heartbeats, and help lower blood pressure. High concentrations of omega-3s are found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. They are also found in some plant sources like ground flaxseed, oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean), walnuts and sunflower seeds.

Brozek says the jury is still out on whether coconut oil should be on the list of beneficial fats because it is a saturated fat. One thing is certain: It is a different type of fat and studies have indicated it may not be as harmful as other saturated fats.

"Just because a food is deemed a 'healthy' fat, doesn't give us a free pass to overindulge," she says. "All fats should be eaten in sensible portions. Our ultimate goal is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that contains good fats to nourish our brains, hearts, and cells."

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