By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Long demonized, dietary fats have made a break from the past. Now, it’s clearer than ever that not all fats are bad. Liquid oils and other “good fats” like nuts have even earned a coveted spot on USDA’s MyPlate — a far cry from previous versions of the pyramid that dumped all fats and oils into the tip with a warning to “use sparingly.”
Now government guidelines make a big deal about how fats differ. The new mantra: liquid over solid. That means primarily using fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive or canola oil, instead of solid fats like butter, margarine, shortening, or lard.
Even so, the concept of good fats is an oxymoron for many folks. It just gets stuck in their heads that fat is bad. Sure, saturated and trans fats are still on the “bad” list. These fats are known to worsen blood cholesterol levels. But other types of fat — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — have the opposite effect. Scores of studies show that these fats help improve blood cholesterol levels, and liquid oils also provide essential nutrients.
That’s why MyPlate recommends 5-7 teaspoons of oils per day for adults – the specific amount you need is based on your age, gender, and activity level. So that means embracing liquid oils, and no longer fearing fat.
One place you can feel good about using oils is on your salad. Skipping your dressing or opting for a fat-free version won’t do you any favors, suggests a new study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Purdue University researchers found that a fat-free or low-fat salad dressing reduced the absorption of fat-soluble carotenoids – beneficial compounds in the salad such as lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene, and zeaxanthin.
The study’s lead author, Mario Ferruzzi, advised: “If you want to utilize more from your fruits and vegetables, you have to pair them correctly with fat-based dressings. If you have a salad with a fat-free dressing, there is a reduction in calories, but you lose some of the benefits of the vegetables.”
This new era of “good fats,” however, is not a green light to load up on more fat. We’re still advised to keep a lid on total fat, and swap out some of the solid fats we eat for liquid oils. Our average intake of total fat hovers around 33 percent of calories – in line with the recommended limit of 35 percent. But our intake of solid fats still remains too high.
So, instead of putting all your energy into going low-fat, look for ways to change the type of fat you eat. Here are some easy ways you can strike a better balance of good fats:
- Grab a handful of nuts for a snack instead of chips or other fried snacks.
- If you use margarine, choose a soft tub margarine that contains no trans fats.
- Spread nut butters on your bagel instead of cream cheese.
- Sauté with olive oil or canola oil instead of butter.
- Eat fish instead of red meat and poultry at least twice a week – just don’t fry it.
- Top your salad with walnuts and sliced avocado instead of bacon bits and croutons.
How do you count the oils you eat? A tablespoon of vegetable oil (such as canola, corn, cottonseed, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower) is equal to three teaspoons (about half the daily goal of 5-7 teaspoons per day.) One tablespoon of soft margarine, mayonnaise, or salad dressing is equal to 2 ½ teaspoons of oil. Avocados and olives are part of the vegetable group but can count toward the oils you eat: ½ medium avocado is equal to three teaspoons of oil; four large olives provides ½ teaspoon of oil. Nuts and seeds are part of the protein food group, but they’re rich in good fats, too. Count one ounce of nuts as one teaspoon of oils, and two tablespoons of peanut butter as four teaspoons.
So don’t fear fat. Just be choosy about the type of fat you eat.