Fats You Can—and Should—Eat

Think you have to go low fat? Not anymore: New research has turned this nutritional bad guy into a must-eat. Ahead, the good news.

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It's just not fair: Fat got a bad rap decades ago because scientists assumed, based on the misinterpretation of a couple of large studies, that eating foods containing fat would lead directly to obesity and heart disease. Fatty foods were made out to be our sole dietary vice, responsible for raising our cholesterol levels, clogging our arteries, and causing us to get, well, fat.

And that made a kind of intuitive sense—why wouldn't the fat you consume wind up as the fat you see on your butt and thighs? But "the low-fat diet backfired," says Frank Hu, MD, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "America's obesity epidemic skyrocketed even while our fat intake went down." So experts are getting off the "fat is evil" bandwagon these days—and we should, too.

The upside of eating fat
Like carbohydrates and protein, fat is an essential nutrient. This means that your body requires it for key functions, such as absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. "Fat is also an important energy source and is vital for keeping your skin and hair healthy and smooth," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It.

Even more surprising: Research is revealing that eating the right fats can actually lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, and improve your cholesterol levels. That's because all fats are not created equal, Dr. Hu points out. It's not the total amount of fat in your diet that affects how much you weigh or whether you're at risk for heart disease, according to rigorous studies from the past decade. What matters is the type of fats you choose (and, when it comes to dropping pounds, the total number of calories you eat). Here's a breakdown.

Good fats

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)
Found in plant foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and canola oil, and in poultry

MUFAs can actually lower cholesterol levels, and, in doing so, your risk of heart disease. In fact, a Journal of the American Medical Association study showed that replacing a carb-rich diet with one high in monounsaturated fats can do both, and reduce blood pressure, too.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
Found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, and corn and soybean oils

Like MUFAs, PUFAs have been shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce heart disease risk. One type is the omega-3 fatty acid, which is plentiful in some kinds of fish—not to be confused with omega-6 fatty acids, found in meats, corn oil, and soybean oil. Some research finds that Americans eat about 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3; we should be aiming to get closer to four times as much. To do so, Dr. Hu says, sub in fish for meat when you can.

Ok-in-moderation fat

Saturated fat
Found in meat and dairy products such as cheese, butter, and milk

We've been warned for decades to eat less saturated fat—after all, it raises "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels, and thus, it was assumed, ups your risk of heart attack and stroke. Lately, though, research has begun to vindicate it. For instance, a 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review of 21 studies was unable to find a link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease or stroke. Some types have been entirely exonerated: "Stearic acid, found in dark chocolate, is clearly non-harmful," says David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. The same may be true of lauric acid, a type of saturated fat abundant in coconut oil, but there's not enough evidence to say for sure, Dr. Katz says.

While some experts, like Dr. Katz, say there's no downside to cutting out saturated fats, others believe keeping them in the mix helps us avoid getting too many bad-for-you refined carbohydrates instead. Bottom line: You don't need to ban them. Just make sure most of your fat intake is unsaturated, eat red meat only once or twice a week, and use olive oil instead of butter when possible.

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By Kate Lowenstein
Last Updated: March 28, 2012

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