How To Eat The Recommended Unsaturated Fat
By Jenna Stedman, MS, RD, LD, Tactical Dietitian for the Massachusetts National Guard Warrior FIT Program, Supported by O2X Human Performance
What is unsaturated fat?
There are two types of fats to consider. There are unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Unsaturated fats actually improve our health by lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, improving insulin response and sensitivity, and improving cholesterol levels. These are foods like avocado, olives, nuts and seeds, fish, and many others. These are nutrient dense foods that we can eat daily. Saturated fats do harm to the human body by increasing cardiovascular complications, increasing the risk for heart disease, and type 2 diabetes by increasing insulin resistance. These are foods like palm oil and coconut oil, butter, meats, and dairy products.
Unsaturated fats are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, depending on their chemical structure. Both are healthy options to include in our nutrition pattern daily. You may have heard of omega-3 fatty acids, which are a type of unsaturated fat. The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Foods can contain a different amount of each of these healthful fatty acids, so it is important to include a variety of foods in our nutrition pattern. For those who may struggle to consume foods that are high in unsaturated fats, there are dietary supplement options too.
What does the evidence say?
A 2014 clinical review of the PREDIMED study results by Ros et al. demonstrated that a high-unsaturated fat and antioxidant-rich dietary pattern, such as the Mediterranean Diet, is a useful tool in the prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.(1)
A 2014 clinical review by Hibbeln et al. suggests that a dietary pattern rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce military psychiatric distress and simultaneously increase force efficacy substantially.(2)
A 2021 meta analysis by Lui et al. found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is related to a reduction in serum triglycerides, LDL, and inflammation index levels and has few adverse reactions.(3)
Five foods rich in unsaturated fats and how to include them in your nutrition pattern.
- Nuts, nut butters, and seeds – Aim for a handful or two of mixed nuts or trail mix as a snack. Try adding ground flax seeds or chia seeds to oatmeal or smoothies. Make a classic PB&J sandwich or add a scoop to oatmeal or smoothies. Try nut butter crackers or with pretzels as a snack.
- Avocado – Try adding slices onto a sandwich or burrito. Enjoy guacamole as a dip with corn chips or veggies slices. Try slices of avocado on toast, on a chicken sandwich, or on rice and beans. Add avocado pieces onto salads.
- Olive oil and olives – Try cooking with a little olive oil instead of butter. Add olives to salads or to rice and bean dishes. Try making your own salad dressing using olive oil as the base ingredient. Try using olive oil in recipes that call for butter instead.
- Fish – Choose fish a few times per week as your protein source in a meal. Aim for fish that contain lower levels of mercury and other heavy metals. Choose fish when going out for dinner or lunch.
- Soy and soy products – Try edamame beans as a snack or try tofu as your protein source for a meal. For those who may be lactose intolerant, soy milk is the recommended replacement for cow’s milk. Try some of the new meat replacement soy based products, like sausages or burgers.
What is recommended?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends of the 20-30% of our nutrition pattern that comes from fats, less than 10% of your daily calories comes from saturated fats.(4) This indicates that 20% or more of your daily calories should be from unsaturated fats. This will be a different amount or number of servings for each person. Smaller SMs will require fewer servings of fat daily than SMs who are larger. Check with your tactical dietitian to find out if you are consuming enough unsaturated fats most days.
We can certainly still eat foods that contain saturated fats. The human body is fairly resilient and eating foods like these once in a while will not increase the risk of disease. The idea is to look at our nutrition pattern as a whole and choose more foods rich in unsaturated fats than we choose foods that are rich in saturated fats. It is the overall pattern that impacts our health state more so than a single meal. So enjoy a cheeseburger once in a while, but aim to choose a leaner protein choice with a whole grain and produce most other meals. Instead of snacking on just a cheese stick every day, try peanut butter crackers and fruit as a daily snack and enjoy a cheese stick once in a while. You never have to give up any of your favorite foods or cut out any foods. Aim to choose more healthful food options more often, and you can still enjoy less nutrient dense foods too.
What about Supplements?
The best option is to try adding more foods that are rich in unsaturated fats first, before we resort to dietary supplements. Remember that the dietary supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA like our food is. This means that if we are choosing to include an omega-3 supplement that we want to choose one from a trusted brand that is third party tested by an independent lab, such as USP. Be cautious of supplements and choose foods first. It is always more delicious to eat a sandwich than it is to take a pill. If there is a situation where you may have limited access to unsaturated fat rich foods, check with your tactical dietitian to find the best supplement for that time.
Eat Foods You Like
Choose foods that you actually like. You never have to force yourself to eat foods that you dislike. If you love peanut butter but hate avocados, then enjoy peanut butter often and skip the guacamole. While our target is to choose the most healthful nutrition pattern most of the time, we also should enjoy our meals and snacks. Try new foods and new combinations of foods to see if you like more of the unsaturated fat options.
- Ros E, Martínez-González MA, Estruch R, et al. Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular health: Teachings of the PREDIMED study. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(3):330S-6S. Published 2014 May 14. doi:10.3945/an.113.005389
- Hibbeln JR, Gow RV. The potential for military diets to reduce depression, suicide, and impulsive aggression: a review of current evidence for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Mil Med. 2014;179(11 Suppl):117-128. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-14-00153
- Liu R, Jiang J, Fu Z, Liu C, Yao L, Quan H. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake in Patients Undergoing Dialysis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials [published online ahead of print, 2021 Oct 11]. J Am Coll Nutr. 2021;1-16. doi:10.1080/07315724.2021.1953416