Here's the skinny on the good, the bad, and the ugly (also known as unsaturated, saturated, and too much). Plus smart picks, no matter your craving.
Sorting It Out
With low-fat diets everywhere, and talk of good fats and bad fats, knowing what to eat and how much can be confusing. Our bodies need some fat for energy, for vitamin absorption, for healthy hair and skin, and for stoking our metabolism. All that, plus fats a flavor carrier -- so without it, certain dishes wouldn't taste as luscious as they should. With such good qualities, why the bad rep?
Sat Fat vs. Unsat Fat
Saturated fat is found in marbled meat, poultry skin, some dairy products (think butter and cream), all tropical oils, and many processed foods. It can raise LDL (bad cholesterol), clog arteries, and contribute to heart disease. You don't have to swear off cheeseburgers; just indulge in them rarely. Instead, whenever possible, choose sources of fat that are mostly unsaturated (for example, avocado and nuts). These can lower LDL and move you closer to better health.
Making Good Choices
Choose lean cuts of beef, such as flank steak, for a hefty supply of protein, zinc, and B vitamins.
Best Pick: Sirloin
Tender yet lean, sirloin has less saturated fat than a skin-on chicken thigh.
If you buy it skin-on, leave the skin intact as the meat cooks, then remove it before serving.
Best Pick: Skinless Breast
For chicken with the lowest amount of saturated fat, choose skinless chicken breast.
It's high in protein, but often high in sat fats, too. Get best-quality ones, and use sparingly.
Best Pick: Parmesan
With its big flavor, Parmesan has less fat (and more calcium) than many other cheeses.
Opt for reduced-fat (2 percent) or low-fat (1 percent) milk --not whole. These two kinds have more calcium and less sat fat.
Best Pick: Fat-Free Milk
Fat-free milk is best but tastes "thin." For extra body, without fat, stir in some nonfat dry milk.
For cooking, pick oils lower in sat fats such as safflower, canola, or grapeseed.
Best Pick: Olive Oil
Choose light for cooking and extra-virgin for taste; both are rich in monounsaturated fat.
Most nuts -- walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts -- are relatively low in sat fat and a source of protein.
Best Pick: Almonds
Grab a handful (about 1/4 cup) of these for a snack packed with protein and vitamin E.
It may seem counterintuitive, but fatty foods aren't necessarily fattening. In fact, a diet with a moderate amount of unsaturated fats -- such as those in avocados, olives, fatty fish, nuts, and oils derived from olives, nuts, and seeds -- may prevent weight gain.
One explanation: Incorporating fat and its accompanying flavor into everyday life makes a healthful diet easier to stick with. In a recent study at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School, scientists found that subjects who maintained a moderate-fat diet lost, on average, nine pounds over an 18-month period. By contrast, those who followed a low-fat regime actually gained six pounds.
Unsaturated fats, to their extra credit, have a favorable effect on blood cholesterol, offering powerful protection against heart disease. Fats also make it easier for the body to absorb certain nutrients, such as lycopene (in tomatoes) and lutein (from kale), which means a drizzle of olive oil is a smart addition to many vegetable dishes. As long as total calories stay at a sensible constant, good fats will maximize food and flavors, not waistlines.