plate of salmon and green beans

Knocking unnecessary fats out of your diet is a good idea for countless reasons. Besides keeping your waistline trim, it’s also good for your heart, brain, veins, and arteries.

Not all fats are created equal, however. While some can be harmful, others are very helpful. 

Christina K. Major, M.S., N.D., a holistic nutritionist and naturopathic doctor, says the average American eats far too much processed food. Processed food tends to contain high amounts of trans fats and sugars. When you follow a natural diet — essentially shunning all processed foods that come in a box — counting fats becomes irrelevant.

“Common sense will tell a person that butter and animal meats, which have been the staple of the human diet for thousands of years, are not inherently bad,” Major says. “The introduction of processed fats, meats, and food products have coincided with rise in obesity, heart disease, and weight gain.”

Types of Fats

Saturated fat typically comes from animal sources, including meat and milk. Trans fats are man-made fats and are most common in foods that have been partially hydrogenated, usually processed foods, which makes them less likely to spoil. Both raise bad cholesterol and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend that less that 7 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat and less than 1 percent should come from trans fat.

Healthier fats include omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fats, are thought to be especially healthy. These are found naturally in plants, oils, nuts, and some types of meats, like fatty fish.

Sources of good fats the Mayo Clinic recommends include:

  • olive oil
  • canola oil
  • flaxseed and other seeds, such as chia seeds
  • nuts

“Indeed, research from the foremost medical colleges have retracted the low-fat diets in favor of natural diets that focus on eliminating unnatural food products,” Major says.

Swap Your Fats

Since unhealthy fats are in all sorts of processed foods, there are many other ways to appease your taste buds without getting harmful fats.

“Choose foods rich in monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats more often than those containing high levels of saturated fats or trans fats,” says Emily Lisciandro, MS, RD, LD at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Lisciandro recommends snacking on nuts instead of cookies, adding tofu to smoothies instead of real ice cream, ordering fish instead of steak, or dipping veggies in peanut butter instead of a pre-made dip.

The reason you want to reduce total fat intake is so you can reduce your total calorie intake. While healthy fats are fine for overall health, they can be hard on the waistline, since fat is a concentrated source of calories. High-fat foods are high in calories. For example, six almonds are about equal to 2 cups of air-popped popcorn in calories.

To lower your intake, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends the following fat exchanges:

  • low-fat, 2 percent, or skim milk instead of whole milk
  • sorbet or frozen yogurt instead of ice cream
  • low-fat yogurt instead of sour cream
  • low-fat milk instead of coffee creamer
  • rice noodles instead of ramen noodles
  • bran flakes instead of granola
  • water-packed tuna instead of oil packed tuna
  • skinless poultry instead of skin-on birds
  • turkey or chicken sausage instead of chorizo
  • egg whites instead of whole eggs
  • English muffins or bagels instead of donuts or muffins
  • puddings instead of custards
  • low-fat versions of margarines, mayonnaise, and salad dressings
  • salsa instead of guacamole or refried beans made with lard

A Low-Fat Meal Plan

Jessica Cox, R.D., a culinary nutritionist at eMeals, offers this sample meal plan template for a healthy low-fat diet:

Breakfast

  • Veggie egg white omelet with reduced-fat cheese, prepared using canola oil
  • Whole grain toast with fruit spread
  • Glass of skim milk

Lunch

  • Salad made with lettuce, drained and rinsed canned beans, and chopped fresh vegetables with olive oil and lemon juice for dressing
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Fresh fruit

OR

  • Tuna salad made with canola mayonnaise (see recipe below) on a whole grain English muffin
  • Fresh fruit

Dinner

  • Broiled salmon with whole grain brown rice and green beans sautéed in olive oil

OR

  • Grilled chicken breast with Green Bean-Potato Salad (see recipe below) 

A Few Universal Tips to Help Eliminate Fat

Eat outside the box. Processed foods are common culprits of added fats. Seek natural foods such as raw vegetables, fruits, and whole grains instead.

Seek low-fat alternatives. Many dairy products, meats, and other foods come in low-fat varieties, so pick them up when grocery shopping.

Don’t shop on an empty stomach. You’ll be better apt to choose healthier foods if your brain isn’t salivating over what you see in the snack aisle.

Think about food before you get hungry. The longer you wait, the more likely your body will begin to crave fattier foods. This is a leftover from mankind’s hunter-gatherer days, when stored fats helped provide sustenance through food droughts. Planning your meals ahead of time can help keep caveman decisions from sliding into your diet.

Recipes

Below are two recipes recommended by Jessica Cox as part of her sample meal plan. Enjoy!

Tuna-and-Grape Salad

  • ½ cup 2% plain Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup light mayonnaise
  • Grated rind and juice of ½ lemon
  • ¾ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 (12-ounce) cans chunk light tuna in water, drained
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup seedless red grapes, cut in half
  1. Whisk together yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon rind, lemon juice, and pepper in a large bowl.
  2. Add tuna, celery and grapes; toss to coat. Serves six.

Green Bean and Potato Salad

  • 2 pounds small red potatoes
  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed and cut in half
  • 2 cups baby arugula
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  1. Bring potatoes and water to a boil in a large saucepan; cover and simmer 10 minutes or until almost tender.
  2. Add green beans; cook 5 minutes or until beans are crisp-tender.
  3. Drain.
  4. Rinse with cold water, and drain.
  5. Cut potatoes into 1-inch pieces.
  6. Combine potatoes, beans, and arugula in a large bowl.
  7. Whisk together lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper; gradually whisk in oil.
  8. Pour over potato mixture; toss gently.
  9. Cover and chill at least 1 hour. Serves six.