These small but mighty seeds are loaded with omega-3s, fiber, protein, essential minerals, and antioxidants. Their popularity as a superfood is well deserved—you can toss a tablespoon into your smoothies for a quick fat, fiber, and protein boost, or soak them overnight for a ready-when-you-wake-up breakfast parfait. You can even use them to add nutritional punch to your desserts.
Why are trans fats bad for you, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats good for you, and saturated fats somewhere in-between? For years, fat was a four-letter word. We were urged to banish it from our diets whenever possible. We switched to low-fat foods. But the shift didn't make us healthier, probably because we cut back on healthy fats as well as harmful ones.
Dr. Michael and Dr. Mary Eades in their book Good Calories, Bad Calories write about the role that saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil play in immune health stating that the “loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi”.
It also has several other positive effects on health as well. Although it may seem counterintuitive, eating good fats for weight loss can be extremely beneficial. Fat is digested more slowly than carbohydrates and protein to promote satiety and helps bump up the flavor of foods. Both human and animal studies have found that fat can suppress food intake later in the day, which could potentially enhance weight loss. (34)
When in the correct balance with omega-3 fats, omega-6 fats are healing fats. Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. There are healthy and unhealthy sources of omega-6 fats. Healthy sources include sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame seeds, and walnuts. When eaten in the ideal ratio with omega-3 fats (between 4:1 and 1:1), these omega-6 fats promote health.
Healthy fats in the right ratio are needed for bone mineral density and the prevention of osteoporosis. Fats are involved in calcium metabolism and the vitamins K2 and D are both fat-soluble nutrients that collaborate in building bone. Many factors influence bone health, but providing the building blocks for bone with adequate “good” fats and the ideal omega-3 and -6 ratio can only help.
Healthy fats are unsaturated fats that are found in fatty fish like salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds, plant oils that are liquid at room temperature like olive oil, and coconut oil. Coconut oil is contested as a healthy fat because it is a saturated fat, but because the majority of its fat content is medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), I consider them an exception.
The fact that many Americans still haven’t shaken off the decades-long notion that fat—and particularly saturated fat—is bad for you, isn’t even the biggest issue we face in adopting more fats into our diets. Many of us struggle to determine which fats we should be eating because the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (and nutrition labels) are both generalizing and misleading.
Along with nuts, seeds get high marks as healthy fats to improve good cholesterol. And flaxseeds are especially popular among nutritionists because of their versatility in a heart-healthy diet. “Sprinkle flaxseeds onto whatever you like,” says Haisley. “My favorite is with Greek yogurt or on my oatmeal. It is a great addition to salads or whisked into your favorite homemade salad dressing. You can even bake with it, too; try using 3 tablespoons of flaxseed in place of 1 tablespoon of oil or margarine in your muffins.” Try these cranberry-nut mini loaves with flaxseeds.
Flaxseed is available in health food stores and many supermarkets, sold as whole seeds, ground seeds, or oil. Although flaxseed oil contains ALA, Magee says ground flaxseed is a much better choice because it also contains 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon, as well as healthy phytoestrogens. Other sources of omega-3s include canola oil, broccoli, cantaloupe, kidney beans, spinach, grape leaves, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, and walnuts.
Fat droplets start to pass through the duodenum where bile acids are added (bile acids are from cholesterol in the liver and stored in the gall bladder). Bile acids are really cool because they act like soap breaking and emulsifying the fat droplets and making them into even smaller droplets. I like to use the visual of washing a pan with grease on it with soap, at first the grease barely comes off, but with a little muscle and scrubbing with soap the detergent breaks up the fat and grease into very small particles until it’s gone.
Unfortunately, buying this healthy fat isn’t as easy as just grabbing the first bottle you see. Make sure to pick only extra virgin varieties of the oil, which means no chemicals are involved when the oil is refined. Unfortunately, many common brands have been shown to fail the standards for extra virgin olive oils, meaning it’s important to choose wisely.