Cheese often gets a bad-rap for being a high-fat food—especially hard, full-fat cheeses like Parmesan. While it is true that cheeses have more saturated fats than plant based foods, they (especially Parmesan, which contains 8 grams fat and 5 grams saturated fat per ounce), provide loads of other nutrients as well. In fact, Parm tops the cheese charts in terms of its bone-building calcium content, providing nearly a third of your daily calcium needs. Ounce for ounce, it has more protein than any other food—and yes, we are including meat and eggs on that list!
Omega-3 fatty acids promote health in several ways. They reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels (8). Omega-3 fats are also essential for brain and eye health (9).
Consuming monounsaturated fatty acids may protect you from heart disease by lowering LDL and total cholesterol, improve the function of blood vessels, help prevent depression, improve body composition, and improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control (10,11). Monounsaturated fats have even been shown to reduce cancer risk (12). Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contain the antioxidant vitamin E which has many health benefits.
That said, dietary fat plays a significant role in obesity. Fat is calorie-dense, at 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein have only 4 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7 calories per gram. It's easy to overeat fats because they lurk in so many foods we love: french fries, processed foods, cakes, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, thick steaks, and cheese.
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Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest form of olive oil and has the richest flavor. It is made without any heat or chemicals and has a low smoke point. Because of its low smoke point, extra virgin olive oil is best used drizzled over cooked or raw foods, or as a salad dressing. To give the salad a nutrition boost, top it with healthy fats from olives, avocado, grass-fed cheese, and nuts.
Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature and come mostly from animal products, with the exception of tropical oils. Taking in too much saturated fat is linked with raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood and increasing internal inflammation. Healthy adults should limit their saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of total calories. For a person eating a 2000 calorie diet, this would be 22 grams of saturated fat or less per day. If you have elevated LDL cholesterol levels, it is recommended to reduce saturated fat intake to no more than 7% of total calories. Foods high in saturated fat include:
Are you afraid of fats? If so, you’re not alone. Fat in foods has been vilified in America for the past few decades, as low-fat and non-fat foods became the norm and we were told that cutting even healthy fats out of the diet would help us get the body we want. In fact, it’s one of the biggest nutrition lies that the public’s been told throughout history.
We mean the yolks, not shells. If you’re one of the people who still isn’t sure if you should eat the yolk, here’s your answer: yes! While the whites are all protein, leaving the yolk to contain the fat and cholesterol, there’s no need to worry. The fat in yolks is mostly monounsaturated, and a study by University of Connecticut researchers found that the overall fat profile in egg yolks ultimately helps to reduce LDL (“bad” cholesterol). Not only will it improve your cholesterol, eggs are the number-one dietary source of a nutrient called choline. Choline, which is found also in lean meats, seafood, and collard greens, attacks the gene mechanism that triggers your body to store fat around your liver.
Salmon might not get as bad of a rap for being high in fat, but its health benefits are worth repeating. By adding this fish fillet into your diet just twice a week, you’ll get the full amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids recommended by the American Heart Association. Omega-3s reduce the risk of arrhythmia, decrease triglyceride levels, and can actually slightly lower blood pressure. When you’re at the fish counter, make sure to pick up the right kind—while pink salmon is the second best fish for nutrition and health benefits, farmed Atlantic salmon is one of the worst.
SOURCES: Laurie Tansman, MS, RD, nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York; Lona Sandon, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; associate professor of nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, consultant, WebMD Weight Loss clinic; author, The Flax Cookbook (Marlowe and Company), Northern California; American Heart Association Advisory on Omega-3 fatty acids; Food and Drug Administration Advisory on Fish Consumption.
Trans fat. This is a type of fat that occurs naturally in some foods in small amounts. But most trans fats are made from oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. These partially hydrogenated trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Following the momentous Seven Countries Study, organizations like the American Heart Association began urging consumers to cut down on consumption of saturated fat to improve heart health despite the lack of evidence demonstrating a clear link between saturated fat and heart disease. Not only did this cause confusion for consumers about the differences between saturated versus unsaturated fat, but it also caused many people to associate overall fat intake with weight gain and heart problems.
Olives are rich in monounsaturated fat. Add them to salads or snacks, and cook with olive oil whenever possible as part of a heart-healthy diet. “Olive oil is made up of triglycerides that contain a very large percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids,” says Janet Bond Brill, PhD, a registered dietitian and author of Cholesterol Down: 10 Simple Steps to Lower Your Cholesterol in 4 Weeks Without Prescription Drugs and Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease. “Up to 80 percent of olive oil is monounsaturated, primarily the omega-9 fatty acid known as oleic acid. The high monounsaturated fatty acid content of olive oil is extremely cardioprotective — it cuts your ‘bad’ cholesterol level, helps prevent atherosclerosis, and can bump up your level of HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol.” Try this simple olive-based side dish of chard with green olives, currants, and goat cheese.
The discovery that monounsaturated fat could be healthful came from the Seven Countries Study during the 1960s. It revealed that people in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean region enjoyed a low rate of heart disease despite a high-fat diet. The main fat in their diet, though, was not the saturated animal fat common in countries with higher rates of heart disease. It was olive oil, which contains mainly monounsaturated fat. This finding produced a surge of interest in olive oil and the "Mediterranean diet," a style of eating regarded as a healthful choice today.
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.