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You've shied away from eating it and worked on the treadmill to burn it off. But fat, it turns out, can be your friend. "Your body needs it in order to function," says Barbara Roberts, MD, director of the Women's Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence and author of How to Keep from Breaking Your Heart. "Fats help you absorb vitamins A, D, and E, and they are vital for your nervous system." Not only that, women who ate a Mediterranean diet filled with healthy monounsaturated fat lowered their risk of heart disease by 29 percent, according to a new study in Circulation.
Of your total daily calories, 25 to 30 percent should come from fat. The keys: Pick good-for-you fats, and limit the bad kinds. Don't know a saturated from a poly? Here's the skinny on which fats to eat and which to avoid.The Good: Unsaturated Fats
What they do: These fats, known as MUFAs, raise good HDL cholesterol, lower bad LDL cholesterol, and protect against the buildup of plaque in your arteries. They also help prevent belly fat, according to research.
Where you'll find them: In olive oil and olives, canola oil, almonds, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds, and avocados.
How much you need: Most of the fat you eat should be unsaturated, like MUFAs. "Just two to three tablespoons of olive oil a day can raise HDL levels and protect against heart disease," says Dr. Roberts.
What they do: In addition to lowering your LDL, these fats contain essential omega-3 fatty acids -- which boost brain function and may help strengthen your immune system and improve your mood -- and omega-6 fatty acids, which in small amounts can keep skin and eyes healthy.
Where you'll find them: Omega-3s are primarily in fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring, as well as canola oil, flaxseed, walnuts, and tofu. Omega-6s are in corn and safflower oil, corn-fed chicken and beef, and farmed fish.
How much you need: Most of the polys you eat should be omega-3s. Too much omega-6 can lead to inflammation, which is linked to heart disease. Trade vegetable oil for olive and canola oils, and eat grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish.
What they do: They raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease.
Where you'll find them: In meat and poultry, in dairy products like cream, butter, and whole and 2 percent milk, and in some plant foods like coconut and palm oil.
How much you need: Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. One easy way to cut back: "Remove any hard fat you can see, such as the skin on chicken," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
What they do: Made from unsaturated fat that's been chemically altered to prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, trans fats raise bad LDL and lower good HDL, increasing inflammation throughout the body. "They 100 percent promote heart disease," says Dr. Gerbstadt.
Where you'll find them: In shortening, margarine, doughnuts, french fries, and processed foods such as crackers, cookies, chips, and cakes.
How much you need: Zero. But know this: The FDA allows food manufacturers to claim that a product contains "zero trans fats" if one serving of it has 0.5 grams of trans fats or less. "That means if you eat more than one serving, you could be getting a gram or more," warns Dr. Gerbstadt. Before buying foods, check the ingredient labels for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" -- trans fats' sneaky pseudonym.
"The average person has 10 billion to 20 billion fat cells," says Philipp Scherer, PhD, director of the Touchstone Diabetes Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Researchers aren't sure what determines your number, but they do know genetics and lifestyle play a role. Eat too much for too long and your body can create new fat cells, says Susan K. Fried, PhD, director of the Adipocyte Core at the Boston Obesity Nutrition Research Center at Boston University School of Medicine. "If you lose weight, fat cells shrink, but they don't disappear."
To outfox your fat, follow a healthy, balanced diet of lean protein, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Do cardio and strength training regularly. And if you have belly fat, which research has linked to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, pick up your pace by doing interval training four times a week: Alternate two minutes of sprinting with 60 seconds of walking for half an hour.Feeling Like You Need a Fat Fix?
You may have a "fat tooth." The tongue has a receptor for fat, just as it does for sweet and salty, research shows. "The richness and creaminess of foods like ice cream and the texture of chocolate can make them irresistible to us," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. To curb your fat cravings, eat every three hours, advises Emily Rubin, an RD at the Jefferson Digestive Disease Institute in Philadelphia. "Munch on lean protein and fiber-rich foods, such as chicken and vegetables, which keep you feeling full -- and less likely to pig out."
Trying to lose weight? "Have a small amount of fat at every meal," says Katherine Zeratsky, an RD at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "It digests slowly, so you'll feel satisfied for a longer period of time, and you'll eat less overall." Reach for a few of these heart-healthy choices every day.
1 ounce (23 nuts): 163 calories, 14g fat (1g saturated)
1/4 cup: 193 calories,18g fat (1g saturated)
1/4 California avocado: 57 calories, 5g fat (1g saturated)
1 tablespoon: 119 calories, 14g fat (2g saturated)
Peanut Butter (smooth)
1 tablespoon: 94 calories, 8g fat (2g saturated)
Olives (green or black)
8 jumbo olives: 54 calories, 5g fat (1g saturated)
Sunflower Seeds (unsalted, roasted, hulled)
1/4 cup: 186 calories, 16g fat (2g saturated)
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Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2009.