Are you fat phobic? According to 2012 data from the International Food Information Council, while only one in five people believe that all fats have the same impact on health, 67 percent say they try to eat as little fat as possible. I was disappointed to read this because I had hoped the days of fat phobia were over.
When I first started out in private practice, fat-free diets were all the rage. I had clients who wouldn’t eat something if it had half a gram of fat in it, but they would eat huge quantities of unhealthy fat-free foods such as no-fat candy and cookies or doughy bagels with jam. At the time, the thinking was that since fat packs nine calories per gram compared to just four in protein and carbs, reducing fat was an effective way to avoid excess calories. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. Fat is satiating, so cutting it too much can lead to constant hunger. And lo and behold, we saw that avoiding fat led to overeating refined carbs and sugar, which ultimately increased calorie intakes and likely played a role in the current obesity crisis.
The truth is, while it may seem counterintuitive, eating fat won’t make you fat, and it’s one of the most important nutrients in your diet for both health and weight control. Fat is a structural component of your cells, so you need it for cell maintenance, repair, and healing. That’s why a diet too low in fat can leave you feeling fatigued and cause dry and cracked skin, dull-looking hair, and irregular periods. Fats also allows fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants to be absorbed from your digestive system into your bloodstream, and certain fats play a key role in fighting inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging and disease. Bottom line: It’s all about having the right types of fat and not overdoing it. Here are four fatty foods I enjoy daily, along with their health and weight-loss benefits, and easy ways to incorporate them into meals.
Some people think of avocados as “fattening” since they’re decadent and the main ingredient in guacamole, something few regard as a diet food, but they’re actually quite slimming and healthy. Most of the fat in avocados is monounsaturated (aka “MUFA”), the heart-healthy fat that lowers “bad” cholesterol, ups “good” cholesterol, and reduces inflammation. And that good fat is bundled with antioxidants and nearly 20 different vitamins and minerals. Also, avocados act as nutrient boosters: An Ohio State study looked at the absorption of antioxidants when men and women ate salads and salsa with and without fresh avocado. When salads were peppered with 2 1/2 tablespoons of avocado, the subjects absorbed eight times more alpha-carotene and 13 times more beta-carotene, both of which help fight cancer and heart disease.
Enjoy It: Add avocado to a veggie omelet or spread it on whole-grain toast at breakfast in place of butter. You can also use it as the base for a satisfying salad dressing, add it to sandwiches and of course Mexican dishes, or whip it into a fruit smoothie.
In addition to antioxidants, key minerals, and healthy fat, almonds contain protein and fiber, which help you feel fuller longer. And University of California at Irvine research found that unsaturated fats like those in almonds trigger the production of a substance in the GI tract that shuts off hunger. Plus, there is plenty of research to support almonds’ weight-control benefits. In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, researchers found that a low-calorie, almond-enriched diet helped overweight people shed more pounds than a low-calorie diet higher in complex carbohydrates. Both groups of dieters ate the same number of calories and equivalent amounts of protein, but after six months, those on the almond-enriched diet experienced a 62 percent greater reduction in their body weights, a 50 percent greater loss in waist circumference, and a 56 percent greater loss of body fat.
Enjoy It: I have dozens of ideas for incorporating almonds into meals, from whipping almond butter into smoothies to adding sliced or slivered almonds to garden salads and stir-fries, to using them as a coating for chicken, fish, tofu, or fruit-based snacks.
Coconut water has become mainstream, but this beverage comes from the clear liquid that pools inside whole green coconuts. For healthy fat you need to consume coconut “meat” or coconut oil, which is derived from pressing the oil out of the meat. And for weight loss and heart-health benefits, it’s all about the oil. One Brazilian study compared the use of one ounce of soybean oil and one ounce of coconut oil over 12 weeks in women who walked for 50 minutes a day. Both groups lost weight, but only the coconut-oil eaters experienced a reduction in waist size. They also had higher levels of “good” HDL, which helps clear cholesterol deposits from arteries, and lower levels of “bad” LDL, which ups heart risk. Coconut oil also provides antioxidants similar to those in berries, grapes, and dark chocolate.
Enjoy It: I reach for coconut oil to pan-sear seafood or tofu, or to cook stir-fries. It’s also a perfect alternative to butter in baked goods, like oatmeal dark chocolate chunk cookies, and it’s one of the secret ingredients in my five-minute dark chocolate truffles.
In my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, I devote an entire chapter to dark chocolate and make a ‘Daily Dark Chocolate Escape’ a mandatory treat. I count it as a fat source because it provides a healthy dose in the form of cocoa butter, the natural fat found in cocoa beans. Enjoying high-fat dark chocolate daily is a smart weight-loss strategy because it’s been shown to curb cravings for both sweet and salty foods. That may be why a recent University of California at San Diego study found that frequent chocolate eaters weigh less. This treat is also good for your health: Chocolate’s antioxidants trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. One recent study found that heart attack survivors who ate chocolate twice a week cut their risk of dying from heart disease about threefold. Another recent study found that just seven days of dark chocolate slashed “bad” LDL cholesterol by 6 percent, increased “good” HDL by 9 percent, and reduced inflammation in women. Dark chocolate also fights stress and enhances mood. In fact, natural substances in dark chocolate create the same sense of euphoria you experience when you’re in love!
Enjoy It: There are so many ways to enjoy dark chocolate. Look for tasting squares or chocolate chips that are 70 percent cocoa or greater. Melt and fold into oatmeal, use as a dip for fresh fruit, or simply enjoy a few squares and savor every morsel guilt-free.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.