Over the past few decades, fats have gotten a negative reputation in the health and fitness world. However, maintaining a diet with moderate amounts of "good" fats helps the body and brain work at optimal levels. Healthy fats support many body functions, enhance the absorption of vitamins, and provide substances the body needs but can't produce by itself. In fact, good fats are the most efficient source of food energy and can offer a wealth of benefits including:
- Enabling your brain to carry messages faster
- Helping to reduce cholesterol and risk of heart disease or stroke
- Keeping your skin and hair healthy
- Aiding absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Filling fat cells and insulating the body to help keep warm
- Supporting brain development
- Controlling inflammation
- Assisting with blood clotting
Fats are a type of nutrient. They provide essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid. These are called "essential" because your body cannot produce them or work without them. However, in terms of watching weight, all fats have nine calories per gram, more than twice that of carbohydrates and protein. So moderation and balance are the keys to a healthy diet.
Healthy fats include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids. They can be found in many forms:
- Monounsaturated fat improves blood cholesterol levels with benefits for insulin levels and blood sugar control. Sources include olive, sesame and sunflower oil; avocados; olives; and nuts such as almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamia and pistachios.
- Polyunsaturated fat improves blood cholesterol levels and decreases risk of type 2 diabetes. Sources include walnuts; sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds; flaxseed; tofu; and fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout and herring.
- Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in cognitive function, including memory and problem-solving, as well as mental health. They can also decrease the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure and protect against irregular heartbeat. Sources include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, algae, salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and fish oil supplements.
Now let's take a look at the kinds of fats to avoid.
- Saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels in the blood as well as low-density lipoprotein, which can result in higher risk of cardiovascular disease. It can also drive up risk for type 2 diabetes. It is derived primarily from animal sources like full-fat dairy, poultry and red meat.
- Trans fats can have a negative impact by increasing unhealthy LDL cholesterol while also reducing healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Either way, it can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. Typically, trans fats are produced during partial hydrogenation of oils during food processing.
Here are some tips recommended by the American Heart Association:
- Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts
- Limit red meat as well as sugary foods and beverages
- Use naturally occurring unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive
- Seek processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat
- Substitute soft margarine for butter, liquid or tub varieties over harder stick forms
- Avoid doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes
- Limit commercially fried foods, including fast food, and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
Wellness at Work
Proper nutrition should be an integral part of any employee wellness program. The workplace has been shown to be an excellent environment for encouraging healthy lifestyles. For example, tests for factors such as cholesterol and glucose can be incorporated in initial and ongoing biometric screenings to set benchmarks and monitor progress.
Health coaching is also an effective way to help employees stay on track and meet their goals. And, of course, carefully chosen incentives geared toward a particular workforce and its demographics motivate participation. For additional information, take a look at the American Heart Association's "Fats 101" at https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Eat-smart/Articles/Dietary-Fats.
About the Author
Danielle Keenan provides consulting to Keenan clients to design, implement and evaluate best-practice population health management programs. She provides her expertise in developing engagement strategies and programs to address lifestyle risk factors and improve management of chronic conditions to minimize avoidable health care utilization.
She holds a B.A. degree in Psychology from California State University - Long Beach and an M.P.H. degree in Public Health from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Additionally, she has earned the WELCOA Worksite Wellness Certification, is a continuing WELCOA Faculty Member, and was recognized as one of WELCOA's Top 50 Health Promotion Professionals.