Farewell Fat Phobia

Good fats (yes, they exist!) are essential to healthy eating. Which ones should you add to your recipes?

By Jeanne Ambrose

Farewell Fat Phobia

Farewell Fat Phobia

It's the truth. In fact, it's the big fat truth: Your body needs fat to survive. Some fats are better than others, but researchers are reevaluating even the bad-guy role of saturated fats.

"Some common beliefs about fat may not be entirely accurate," says Dr. Donald Hensrud, nutrition specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

It was once thought that trimming total fat from your diet was key to cutting cholesterol and heart disease, but studies indicate swapping in unsaturated for saturated fats has a greater impact. That's not an invitation to eat any fatty food, though. It's still important to cut back on fats that increase risk of obesity, heart disease and other health problems. But boosting intake of "good" fats may provide more healthy benefits. Here's the scoop on choosing and using the right ones.

Make Smart Choices

Not all fats are created equal, but they all have one thing in common—calories. Registered­dietitian Sarah Krieger, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (, points out that oil, butter and shortening all have about 100 calories per tablespoon. "Even though the calorie count is the same, it's best to substitute healthy oils for butter or other saturated fats," she says. "Your heart will thank you."

Here are a few simple swaps you can make in everyday meals:

  • Anoint with olive oil. In countries where olive oil consumption is high, the risk of heart disease and certain cancers is low. Hensrud says using a homemade olive oil salad dressing is a better choice than low-calorie store dressing. Or just drizzle olive oil and squeeze fresh lemon juice over greens. Using 2 tablespoons of olive oil in place of butter every day boosts good cholesterol levels and ­reduces triglycerides, a form of fat circulating in the bloodstream.
  • Add benefits to baking. Substitute vegetable oils for butter or shortening in many baked goods. Krieger ditches butter entirely when making chocolate chip cookies and uses light olive or canola oil instead.
  • Splash on nut oils. Just before serving cooked vegetables, toss them with 1 teaspoon of walnut oil per serving. It's especially tasty on green beans with an added sprinkle of toasted chopped walnuts—and good for your heart, too.
  • Opt for avocados. Take advantage of cholesterol-controlling monounsaturated fats in avocados by eating guacamole (with vegetable dippers instead of chips) or using mashed avocado as a sandwich spread. Potassium-rich avocados may help lower blood pressure as well.
  • Feast on fish. Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna and trout, are good sources of polyunsaturated omega-3 fats. The American Heart Association recommends two 3-1/2-ounce servings of fish per week. The omega-3s in fish reduce abnormal heartbeats, lower triglycerides and can slow the development of artery-clogging plaque.

    Fish that's half an inch thick, whether baked, broiled or grilled, should be cooked for 4 to 6 minutes. Test for doneness with a fork. The fish should flake easily. Add a splash of vitamin C by serving with citrus salsa—combine chopped oranges and/or pineapple with chopped green onions, a squeeze of lime juice and fresh chopped cilantro.
  • Flex those mussels. Certain shellfish contain omega-3 fatty acids equal to that of some recommended fatty fish. Oysters and mussels are particularly rich. Shrimp and clams also contain omega-3s. Include them in soups and stews or serve them steamed in white wine.
  • Get nutty. According to research, eating a handful of nuts five times a week can reduce your risk of dying from heart disease. One serving is four walnut or pecan halves, or seven almonds. Walnuts are especially good because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, Hensrud says. They also stave off hunger. Each nut has its own nutrient profile—for instance, Brazil nuts are high in selenium—so there's an advantage to eating mixed nuts, too.

    Nibble nuts as snacks or finely chop them and use as a crunchy coating for chicken or seafood. Add coarsely chopped nuts to cooked oatmeal, poached pears or stir-fries, or toss some in the blender when you make a smoothie.
  • Favor flaxseed. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil boost heart health and may reduce the risk of certain cancers and arthritis. Fiber-packed flaxseed is also rich in omega-3s and adds subtle nutty flavor to pancakes, cereals, soups and desserts. Grind seeds in a coffee or flaxseed grinder first to release the oils, advises Krieger; otherwise the seeds pass through your body undigested and you won't get the benefits of the oil. Flaxseed oil is best used in salad dressings, or drizzled over pasta, potatoes, or even popcorn. Avoid cooking with the oil, though; heat destroys its beneficial omega-3s.
  • Open sesame. Highly flavored sesame oil contains a combination of antioxidants and mono- and polyunsaturated fats that have been shown to reduce blood pressure in patients with moderately high blood pressure. In one study, participants were asked to use sesame oil as their only oil for cooking and eating for 45 days. Not only did the test subjects' blood pressure stabilize, but they also lost weight. Drizzle sesame oil on food right before serving to get the full flavor.
  • Beef up on lean meat. Although beef does contain saturated fat, about half is monounsaturated. It's also packed with protein, iron and zinc. Three ounces of ground sirloin contains about 1-1/2 grams of saturated fat, a little less than a 3-ounce chicken breast with skin.