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Nutritional Health for Women

Fats are a necessary building block of nutrition and are broken down into fatty acids. The most essential fatty acids that must be supplied by foods are linoleic and linolenic acid, essential for transporting the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fatty acids also help in energy production, the chemical balance of hormones, and nerve and brain function. In the body, fat cushions vital organs, including the eyes, liver, and heart, and also provides insulation against heat loss. Fat is also a very efficient long-term storage site for fuel, providing nine calories per gram.

Fat's bad reputation comes from its high calorie content, which can lead to obesity if eaten in large amounts. Saturated fats found in meat and poultry have a legitimately bad reputation because they contain harmful cholesterol. What contains "bad" cholesterol, however, seems to change almost daily. It used to be thought that eggs, high-fat cheese, and butter fats were very bad for the heart, blood vessels, and arteries. Now these products have been found to also contain healthy fatty acids that are beneficial when eaten in moderation (one egg and one or two servings of butter fat foods a day). The greatest risk of "bad" fats are due to trans-fatty acids and saturated fats, which increase risk of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease and stroke. Trans-fatty acids found in stick margarine, shortening, and many snack foods are processed oils that become unhealthy in the chemical processing they go through. Saturated fats are found in high amounts in fatty meats, especially pork fat and rinds, beef fat and lard, and chicken fat and skin. Processed meats, including sausages, hot dogs, and pepperoni, should be avoided as much as possible, as they not only contain very high amounts of saturated fats, but also nitrates, a cancer-causing chemical.

Saturated fats can be avoided by choosing lean cuts of meat (sirloin and tenderloin), avoiding poultry skin and fat, and avoiding foods made with lard or beef, pork, or chicken fat. Full-fat dairy products should be eaten in moderation due to their higher content of saturated fats. Butter is somewhat controversial. Because it is a saturated animal fat, until recently, butter was considered unhealthy, and stick margarine was thought to be a healthier alternative. However, current research reveals that stick margarine is actually the worst type of spread (it is a trans fat). In contrast, butter has been found to contain conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy essential fatty acid. Therefore, eating a serving of butter a day is fine and is a much healthier choice than stick margarine. For those with high cholesterol and heart disease, using soft "buttery spreads" containing monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats is the best choice, especially soft spreads containing plant products that assist in lowering cholesterol. (Take Control, Benecol, Smart Balance).

The most important research has shown that healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, actually protect the heart from disease by raising the level of the good cholesterol, HDL. This makes certain fats some of the heart-healthiest foods. Heart-healthy fats include peanut butter, avocados, nuts, olive and peanut oil, and fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to prevent some cancers.

Cutting all fats out of your diet is never recommended, especially for active athletic women, because fats are an essential part of hormone functioning, vitamin transport, and disease protection. Fats also promote a feeling of fullness and satisfaction from meals, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, and allow carbohydrates to be digested more slowly, stabilizing blood sugar levels. Fat-containing foods such as meat, poultry, and dairy products provide natural sources of necessary nutrients especially important to women: iron, folate, and B vitamins in meats and calcium in dairy products. Fats should make up 20 to 30 percent of your regular diet.

Healthy Fats

Classifications Examples
Monounsaturated fats olive, safflower, canola, peanut oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, very lean meats and poultry
Polyunsaturated fats cold-water fish, sunflower, corn, soybean, safflower, flaxseed, grapeseed, cottonseed, sesame, walnut oils, soy products, wheat germ, whole grains

Healthy Fats That Are Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Soybean oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Flaxseeds
  • Walnuts
  • Walnut oil
  • Fish oil
  • Canola oil
  • Cold-water fish, including salmon, sardines, lake trout, tuna (albacor, bluefin), oysters, squid, mackerel, swordfish*
  • Omega-3 enriched eggs
*Sardines, large tuna steaks, mackerel, swordfish, and oysters contain higher mercury and PCB levels; in pregnancy, eat these no more than once a month. (Canned tuna, especially albacore, can be eaten twice a week.)

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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