The Skinny on Fat

by Sandra Porter Leon, MS, RDN

Confession: I was a low-fat devotee. From dressing “on the side” to a skim-milk cappuccino, I embraced the 90’s low-fat diet craze when dietary fats were demonized for their artery-clogging properties. Years and numerous research studies later, fat has made a comeback! Now, I am less concerned about the precise grams of dietary fat and focus instead on its health benefits and role in a balanced nutritious diet.

Let’s break down the “skinny” on fats by dispelling a few myths and addressing questions I often hear from our Neighborhood Harvest customers.

What is a healthy fat?

Fat is essential to our diet, necessary for everything from vitamin absorption to hormone production to satiety, and, of course, flavor. But not all fats are created equal. In simple terms, unsaturated fat (found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and fatty fish) tend to be the good guys. In this group, you have probably heard of the superstar omega-3 fatty acid, which supports brain, heart, and even mental health with its anti-inflammatory properties. Look for these fats in plant foods like these winners:

  • Seeds: flax & chia

  • Nuts: walnuts

  • Dark leafy greens: kale & spinach

  • Fatty fish: salmon, tuna, & sardines

Do I need to cut out saturated fat from my diet?

No, but eat it in moderation. Found mostly in animal products, like high-fat dairy and meats, certain saturated fats raise your LDL or bad cholesterol. However, current research suggests that not all saturated fat correlates with elevated cholesterol levels, such as the fatty acids in these often-maligned foods:

  • unrefined coconut oil

  • dark chocolate

  • grass-fed beef

And speaking of beef, according to Web MD, “the fat content of grass-fed beef can be compared to skinless chicken. Replacing saturated fat in grain-fed beef with the unsaturated fat in grass-fed beef has been proven to reduce your risk of heart diseases.” If you love the occasional good steak, this must be music to your ears, but choose lean cuts and stick with 3–4-ounce portions!

How much fat do I really need?

According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI’s), we should aim for fat levels to be 20-35% of your total diet, with saturated fat no more than 10%. So, if you are on a 2000-calorie diet, your range is about 45-80 fat grams per day, with saturated fat less than 20 grams. (that’s the amount in about eight pats of butter). If you don’t have time to count your “macros”, enlist the help of apps like MyFitnessPal or FoodNoms. Keep in mind that fat is just one piece of your dietary puzzle. What is most important for maintaining your health is your overall diet and lifestyle. There are no foods that are off-limits, just smaller portions that can fit in a total eating plan.

Fat Grams Examples

  • TNH Cacao Bliss smoothie- 13 grams

  • ½ avocado with toast and poached egg = 20 grams (3 grams saturated fat)

  • 1 T almond butter with whole-wheat crackers: 9 grams

  • ¼ cup TNH pumpkin seeds with dried cranberries – 16 grams

  • 4 oz grass fed beef- 14 grams fat (6 grams saturated)

  • 4 oz free-range skinless chicken breast- 3 grams (1 gram saturated)

  • ¼ TNH cup hummus with carrots: 6 grams

  • BK WHOPPER with cheese: 46 grams (16 grams saturated)

What kind of oils should I use?

The nutritionists at Canyon Ranch recommend that you ditch your cooking oils and replace them all with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and organic expeller-pressed canola oil for salad dressings, dips, uncooked sauces and hummus. And for cooking at high temperatures, choose an oil with a high smoke point like organic expeller-pressed grapeseed or avocado oil. (Don’t forget TNH Harvest vinaigrette with EVOO and delicious champagne pear vinegar!)

Does fat make you fat?

Eating fat does not make you fat! In fact, including healthy fat as part of your total eating plan can surprisingly help you lose weight, as long as you are mindful of portion sizes. Yes, it is true that fat has more than double the calories per gram than either protein or carbohydrate (the other energy-yielding macronutrients), but meals with healthy fat provides satiety. This simply means less hunger pangs and mindless trips to the fridge. Ironically, low-fat diets may have been the catalyst for our current obesity epidemic, with much of the fat in foods replaced with sugar and refined carbohydrates, causing us to eat more empty calories to feel satisfied.

A good rule of thumb is to eat whole foods in a balanced ratio of protein, fat, and carbs at each meal and snack, with special attention to portions. Snack examples may include:

  • an apple with 1 Tablespoon almond butter and sprinkled cinnamon

  • 1/3 cup hummus with cherry tomatoes

  • 1 cup of Greek yogurt with ½ cup berries and 3 Tablespoon of pumpkin seeds

What are some easy takeaways to help me increase healthy fats in my diet?

  1. Eat fish at least two – four times a week. Try our salmon cakes or quinoa-encrusted salmon, both rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Other fish high in these good fats: trout, sardines, mackerel, trout, and herring.

  2. Choose TNH omega-3-rich eggs, free-range chicken breasts, and grass-fed beef over more conventional grain-fed varieties.

  3. Add healthy fats from ground flax seeds, hemp hearts, chia seeds and nut butters to your morning oatmeal or breakfast bowl. Or try TNH smoothies that contain these ingredients!

  4. Add avocado to sandwiches and salads instead of using condiments or dressings to lower your saturated fat intake.

  5. Stick with Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) and organic expeller-pressed canola oil, since so many oils are ultra-processed.

  6. Always add a sprinkle of olive oil to any greens, especially kale, allowing your body to absorb the highest level of vitamins..

  7. Experiment with virgin non-processed coconut oil as a substitute for butter or shortening when baking.

  8. Limit fried, processed and packaged foods, especially with fats that contain hydrogenated fatty acids. Avoid processed palm kernel oil and coconut oil.

Hopefully you can make a few substitutions (with a little help from The Neighborhood Harvest) that will ensure a diet full of healthy fat!

Have questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Click to send Sandra an email.