Jane Says: Don't Fear These Sources of Healthy Fats
“What are some healthy high-fat foods?” —Leah Amina Webb
We all need fat in our diet—this nutrient is the most potent source of food energy and also helps in brain development, blood clotting, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Any discussion of food fats and whether they are healthy or not is complicated by the fact that all of them, without exception, are a mixture of “bad” and “good” fats—i.e., saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. According to the experts, including the ever-sensible (and former biochemist) Marion Nestle, not only are the proportions different, but some saturated fatty acids raise blood cholesterol levels more than others do. That said, there’s continued controversy over the connection between cholesterol and heart disease; what everyone agrees on is the fact that nutrition science is infernally complicated.
But it doesn’t have to be if you eat a variety of real foods in moderation, and enjoy them while you’re at it. So here’s my cheat sheet of foods that are great sources of healthy fats.
You will likely think “Holy Guacamole!” (sorry) when you hear that one medium avocado contains 30 grams of fat, but most of that fat is the heart-healthy monounsaturated kind. An easy way to work avocados into your diet doesn’t have to involve tortilla chips, which are processed and may contain nasty trans fats. Mash part of a ripe avocado and use it as a sandwich spread, in lieu of mayo, or on hot toast, instead of butter; a sprinkling of sea salt and maybe a little chopped cilantro takes breakfast over the top.
Almonds and Walnuts
Who knew? A recent study by the USDA has shown that almonds, a rich source of vitamin E, have 20 percent fewer calories than previously thought. What sets walnuts apart is the fact that they are the only nut that contains a significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. And according to a 2011 study published in the journal Food and Function, the antioxidants in walnuts rank higher in terms of quality and quantity than any other nut.
Anchovies and Sardines
Eating little wild fish such as anchovies and sardines makes good nutritional sense—they are high in omega-3 fatty acids (which the human body can’t produce), protein, B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and the compound DMAE, which may improve brain function—and it’s good for our oceans as well. Read more about what I have to say on this matter in the October issue of Martha Stewart Living; there’s a handy buyers guide of best brands of canned sardines and anchovies as well.
Time was, the Food Police thought the humble egg raised cholesterol, but that thinking proved to be incorrect for most people. Yay! Eggs are one of the easieset, and least inexpensive sources of healthy fats as well as protein. One large whole egg contains 5 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of which are saturated. Most of the fat is contained in the yolk, but before you commit to a lifetime of scrambled egg whites, know that the yolk is also a very good source of choline, a B vitamin that helps keep your brain, nervous system, and cardiovascular system in tip-top shape. If you have a choice, go for eggs from a local producer at your farmers market; if his or her hens are truly “pastured”—that is, allowed to hunt and peck on grass—the more flavorful the eggs will be, and the more omega-3s they’ll contain.
When steers live their entire lives on pasture, they have more diverse diets (that means grass, not corn), thus their meat is much higher in omega-3s and lower in saturated fats. For a more in-depth look at what the term “grass-fed” really means, click here.
Olive Oil and Olives
We’ve all heard about the wonders of the Mediterranean diet. One of its traditional underpinnings is olive oil, a source of monounsaturated fats. Read about how it stacks up with two far more controversial plant-based cooking oils, canola (click here) and coconut (click here). No matter what cooking oil you prefer, though, be aware that every oil contains 120 calories per tablespoon. Now, a handful of green or black olives makes a satisfying snack. Less than 100 calories worth—about 20 small black olives—contains iron, fiber, vitamin E, and copper. Whip up Alton Brown’s recipe for tapenade, and you’ll get three healthy fats—olives, olive oil, and anchovies (see above entry)—in one fell swoop.
Do you have enough sources of healthy fats in your diet? Tell us what you learned in the comments