What Are Healthy Fats and How Should You Use Them to Make Dinner?
Despite their poor reputation, fats are incredibly healthy for the body. In fact, fat is an essential nutrient, meaning our bodies need it to function—fats provide energy, protect our organs, and support the absorption nutrients, and that's really just scratching the surface. Still, it's worth noting that not all fats are created equal; some promote a healthy heart and body, while others have the opposite effect. Read on to learn all about good fats, plus how to use them for dinner, one of the most important meals of the day.
What Are Healthy Fats?
First, a quick chemistry lesson: Fat molecules are made of carbon atoms, which are linked to form a chain. Depending on the structure of this chain, the fat will be classified as saturated or unsaturated. A saturated fat consists of a straight chain of carbon atoms, while an unsaturated fat is made of a curved chain. What's more, in the body, saturated and unsaturated fats have very different effects. According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats can raise LDL ("bad") blood cholesterol levels, potentially increasing the risk for heart disease. In contrast, unsaturated fats can actually reduce LDL blood cholesterol. They can also decrease inflammation—a major contributor of chronic disease—according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
All of this to say is that healthy fats are those that are unsaturated. When eaten in place of saturated fat, these good fats can decrease the risk of heart disease and inflammation. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many foods contain both types of fat, but some are higher in the unsaturated kind. This includes foods like "olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, eggs, chia seeds, [and] flaxseed," says Megan Byrd, R.D., registered dietitian and founder of The Oregan Dietitian.
Cook with Healthy Oils
One of the easiest ways to make dinner with healthy fats is to cook with olive oil. As Byrd suggests, "Use it lightly sauté vegetables or proteins," like tempeh or turkey burgers. You can also roast ingredients in canola, sunflower, or avocado oil, which are packed with good fats and ideal for high-heat cooking.
Make Sauces with Anti-Inflammatory Foods
The aforementioned oils can also be used to "make your own salad dressings or sauces for meats and vegetables," explains Byrd. Try a deliciously simple dressing like our cider vinaigrette, which calls for just five pantry ingredients. Or make a sauce with worldly flavors, like our Latin marinade (with olive oil) or Thai-inspired lighter peanut sauce (with peanut butter).
Go for Fatty Fish
To infuse your menu with more healthy fats, add fish recipes to your rotation. According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, fatty fish—like salmon, herring, and lake trout—are excellent sources of unsaturated omega-3 fats. Make our Salmon-Spinach Burgers for a casual meal, or try mackerel with date butter for something more elegant.
Top Dishes with Nuts or Seeds
Instantly elevate your finished pasta, salad, or rice dish with a handful of nuts or seeds. From slivered almonds to hemp seeds, these ingredients offer the perfect combo of texture and good fat. Or if you have more time to prepare, "you can crust fish or chicken with chopped nuts, like pecans or almonds," suggests Byrd.