Fat has a bad reputation. And for good reason: Body fat that collects around your stomach, limbs and organs may raise your risk for cancer and heart disease.
But there’s a difference between body fat and dietary fat, says Erma Levy, a research dietician in Behavioral Science at MD Anderson.
Unlike the excess fat around your midsection, some dietary fats are important for good health, Levy says.
“Dietary fats give you energy, support cell function and help your body absorb nutrients from vegetables, fruits and other foods,” she says.
And fat enhances the taste of food, making a person feel more satisfied than eating fat-free foods.
But keep in mind that all fats are not created equal. Unhealthy sources of fat can raise your risk for disease.
“There’s a lot of research linking unhealthy fats like saturated fats and trans fats to inflammation,” Levy says. And inflammation may increase your risk for cancer and other diseases.
Healthy and unhealthy fats
There are many sources of healthy fat, including salmon and tuna, olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
Unhealthy saturated fats are found in red meat and dairy products like cheese, butter and ice cream. Trans fats, also unhealthy, are found in fried and fast foods and processed foods such as crackers, chips and cookies.
It’s all right to have a small amount of saturated fat in your diet. But the trans fats found in fried and highly processed foods are bad news. You should limit these foods as much as possible, Levy says.
Dietary fats give you energy, support cell function and help your body absorb nutrients from vegetables, fruits and other foods.
Fat's bad rap
There’s a reason so many Americans think fat is bad.
For decades, federal health officials believed dietary fat increased body fat. National health guidelines advised people to eat a low-fat diet.
As a result, the average American cut their fat consumption by 11% between 1965 and 2011, research shows. During that same period, the percentage of overweight Americans increased by nearly 25%.
While there are many possible explanations for America’s rising obesity rate, many health experts now believe that avoiding dietary fat is part of the problem. For one thing, the fat removed from low-fat or non-fat foods is often replaced with sugar or salt to make them taste better, Levy says.
“Excess calories lead to body fat, but those don’t come from dietary fat alone,” she says. “Added sugar is a huge source of unhealthy calories.”
Fat in your diet
Fat should make up 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories, Levy says. Here are a few ways to make healthy fats a part of your diet:
- Try cooking with canola or olive oil instead of butter, margarine, shortening or lard. Peanut and corn oils also are a healthy option.
- Eat your salad with an olive oil-based dressing, which helps your body absorb healthy vegetable nutrients. Avoid creamy dressings.
- Add nuts or seeds to a fruit smoothie, or spread peanut butter on whole-grain bread or apples. A small handful of almonds or walnuts also makes a great snack.
- Eat fish like salmon, tuna or herring at least a couple times a week as an alternative to red meat.
Cooking with healthy oils to complement flavors and adding olives, avocado, toasted nuts and seeds to dishes to bring out flavor has become popular.
“These healthy fats are a necessary part of a balanced diet and have health benefits due to their anti-inflammatory nature,” Levy says.
By avoiding the unhealthy sources of fat and eating the good ones in moderation, your diet and your health will benefit.