Fats are primarily a source of energy for the body, and of course they also act as insulators (yes, think blubber). Fat helps maintain temperature, it cushions organs; in the form of fatty acids fats and lipids are essential to many bodily functions, although too much of a good thing, of course, can lead to diabetes, heart disease and several other significant ailments. Oddly enough, however, we're not afraid of fat because of that — we're afraid that fat will make us fat. Well, it can. But so can eating too much sugar, carbs or a mix of everything all together. So here's what you can do to make sure you're getting enough — but not too much — fat in your daily diet.
- Pick unsaturated (plant-based) over saturated (meat-based) fats most of the time. I say most of the time because there are obvious health benefits to eating lean meats, but a plant-based diet has been shown to reduce your risk for disease and it's also better for the environment. Make "Meatless Monday" a weekly ritual in your house, and incorporate foods with healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats — such as avocados and sesame seeds— into your meals as often as you can.
- Do NOT consume trans fats. Period. If you see the word "hydrogenated" on something you're about to put in your shopping cart, drop it — fast — and run in the other direction. This is just another one of our man-made food messes, and hydrogenated oils, whether from soy or vegetables, are possibly carcinogenic. Thanks, Cool Whip, but I'll make my own whipped cream.
- Get your omega-3s. If you don't eat fish 3 times a week or more (and who in the Midwest does?), try eating walnuts, enriched eggs or sprinkling ground flaxseed in your yogurt or cereal. Omega-3 fatty acids protect against not only heart disease and other physical health risks but also ADHD and depression — so in these gray winter months, it can be especially vital to monitor (and likely increase) your intake.
- Mix your fats. I don't necessarily mean mixing salmon and tofu, but rather it's important to know that adding fat to certain foods can actually enhance the absorption of the nutrients in that food. Carotenoids, for example, found in red, yellow and orange peppers, are better absorbed into the body when combined with a healthy fat. Don't dip pepper strips in fat-free ranch dressing; roast them, dress them with olive oil and sprinkle over a little basil and feta cheese. Instant delicious side dish!
- Choose wisely. Yes, this applies to every food choice you make, but especially here — ice cream and full-fat cheeses don't really count as good fats, but other yummy treats like peanut butter and roasted pumpkin seeds do. Start to examine your options not just from the point of view of calories, which many people get hung up on, but also what kind of fat goes into the production of the food. Stick margarine, vegetable shortening, French fries, candy bars...none of these items contain healthy fats, so there's no reason they should be a regular part of your diet.
It's easy to see how a little knowledge can dispel food myths and help you become healthier from the inside out. Don't fear the fat, just get to know the good and bad things about it. Here — this is your free pass to toss anything and everything "fat-free" and "low-fat" from your cupboards and cabinets. A low-fat cookie does not a healthy choice make! If you can find smart swaps for your fatty pitfalls, you're one step closer to a total health makeover.
Next up: Sodium Laureth What?