When it comes to senior nutrition, or a healthy diet in general, the encouragement of dietary fat may scratch some heads. But with fat being one of the three core macronutrients (carbohydrate and protein being the other two), it is absolutely imperative for human health. Additionally, dietary fat does not necessarily lead to fat accumulation in the body, and is needed to maintain cell structure and integrity, offer insulation, assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and other valuable physiological processes. But too much and the wrong type of fat may cause weight gain and the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease and diabetes. By addressing unhealthy versus healthy fat sources and incorporating dietary fats with lean proteins and complex carbs, seniors can maintain and improve health.
Unhealthy versus Healthy Fats
So-called “unhealthy” fats are broken down into saturated and trans fats:
Saturated fat grants its name related to its chemical structure, being entirely saturated with hydrogen bonds and providing its physical properties. Saturated fat is completely solid at room temperature, with butter being a prime example of this type of fat. Additional sources include high-fat and processed meats, whole and full-fat milk and dairy products, some plant oils such as palm and coconut, and convenience snacks using butter or such oils. The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages consuming less than 7 percent of total daily calories from saturated fat, translating to no more than 120 calories (or 13 grams) from such sources, to lessen the risk of heart disease.
Also known as trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are mostly found in margarines, convenience and fried foods, pastries, and desserts. Interestingly, manufactured trans fats started mostly innocent and were produced to prolong shelf life of foods and enhance their flavor. But fast forward to today, and their consumption has sparked such negative health consequences the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has coined the year 2018 for trans fats to be taken out of the food supply. Until its removal, the AHA recommends the intake of trans fat to be less than 1 percent of total daily calories, equivalent to 20 calories and 2 grams based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Unlike unhealthy fats (trans fat in particular) shown to contribute to heart disease, “healthy” or unsaturated fats work to reverse it. There are two types of unsaturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:
Also known as MUFAs, monounsaturated fatty acids contain one double bond in their chemical structure are naturally liquid at room temperature and solid when chilled. Consistently, studies show eating foods rich in MUFAs can help improve cholesterol levels by lowering total cholesterol and that “bad” cholesterol, also known as low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. MUFAs may also improve insulin levels and control blood sugar levels.
Polyunsaturated fats, or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), contain two or more double bonds in their chemical structure and are also liquid at room temperature and solid when chilled. They are mostly found in plant-based products and have shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. PUFAs are further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, or simply omega-3s, have shown to have renowned benefits, mostly reducing risk and managing various diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s are primarily found in fatty fish, flaxseed and canola oils, and various nuts and seeds.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Also known as omega-6s, the polyunsaturated fat is primarily found in vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean) and some meat products. Researchers and nutrition experts suggest omega-6s can fit into a well-balanced diet, though consuming more omega-6s than omega-3s may cause negative health consequences, including unhealthy blood lipids.
Healthy Fats for Senior Diet
Unlike most fruits recognized as carbohydrate sources, avocados are acknowledged for their fat content, specifically the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Aside from their healthy fats, they offer high fiber and potassium concentrations for digestive health and management of blood pressure, respectively. The unique fruit is also rich in folate, copper, and vitamins B6, C, E, and K.
Full-Fat Milk and Dairy Products
Although choosing low-fat milk and dairy products was encouraged not long ago, new research states selecting whole and full-fat may offer weight control and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Even aside from the fat content, milk and dairy products are a significant source of calcium and protein, offering bone and muscle preservation in seniors.
While cholesterol-containing eggs cracked worry in the past, present research suggests to not shy away from the egg or yolk. In fact, even the marginal saturated fat contributed becomes overruled by the protein and vitamins and nutrients eggs supply.
Especially if selecting lean cuts such as tenderloin, beef may not be as fat laden as popularly believed. Lean beef is an excellent source of protein, iron, and zinc, beneficial for preserving muscle mass and oxygenating the blood.
Salmon, trout, tuna, herring, and mackerel are significant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Choosing whole food over fish oil supplements may reap higher benefits, as evidence is conflicting on their value, though are generally still considered safe.
Olives and Olive Oil
Olives not only offer monounsaturated fats, but may play a role in reducing bone loss and combatting against inflammation. Swapping out butter and margarine for olive oil is suggested to lessen both saturated and trans fats while increasing monounsaturated fatty acid content. Additional healthy oils include canola, flaxseed, and soybean oils.
Nuts and Seeds
From macadamia, to pecans, to sunflower seeds, nuts and seeds are rich in healthy fat sources along with fat-soluble vitamins and other minerals. Their associated nut and seed butters are also rich in healthy fats, just stay clear of products containing added oils and sugars.
Not only are soybeans notable for their plant-based protein and fiber content, but also full of both MUFAs and PUFAs. Add soybeans, or edamame, onto salads, into rice dishes, or simply enjoy boiled for a nutritious snack.
Not only can that chocolate craving be kicked, but can be done so in a healthy manner! Dark chocolate and cocoa contain both saturated and monounsaturated fats, along with a healthy dose of various vitamins and minerals and powerful antioxidants. To keep sugar in check, use cocoa powder in cooking and look for dark chocolate products with minimal added sugars.
It is important to remember while healthy fats do exist, their intake should continue to remain moderated. As a general guideline, fat should comprise 25 to 35 percent of total daily calories, primarily consisting of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. And in addition to healthy fats, the diet should further consist of complex carbs, including fresh veggies, fruits, and whole grains, along with protein sources. Below offers a few healthy food ideas to incorporate healthy fats into a well-balanced senior diet.
Healthy Fat Food Ideas
Eggs are a simple way to not only offer healthy fat and protein, but add extra nutrients! In a medium-heat skillet, add desired veggies, including spinach, bell pepper, and tomato, and fold in a couple of eggs. For added protein, dollop with a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt. Wrap mixture into a whole grain tortilla for a filling breakfast burrito.
For a healthy fat and protein-packed tuna salad, mix a 5-ounce can of wild albacore tuna with a small avocado, diced carrots and celery, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Complement with a fiber-filled carb source for a light meal or snack, including whole grain crackers, sliced bell peppers and cucumbers, or carrot sticks.
Filled with healthy fats, protein, and carb, prepare sirloin steak until desired doneness. Top onto a half cup of brown rice and complement with roasted broccoli, carrots, onions, bell peppers, and other Asian-inspired flavors. Feel free to swap out beef with a pan-seared salmon fillet and/or soybeans.
Desiring a crunchy snack? Swap out those (likely) trans fat-filled chips and make your own trail mix! Add favorite nuts and seeds with dried fruits, including pecans, walnuts, shredded coconut, banana chips, and dark chocolate shavings.
Avocado Ice Cream
Unlike most ice creams loaded with sugar, this unique avocado ice cream is naturally sweetened and offers healthy fat. In a blender, add 3 ripe and pitted avocados, 3 peeled and frozen bananas, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. While processing in a blender, slowly add desired milk until the consistency is smooth but thick. Add cocoa powder for a chocolately treat and/or add favorite toppings, including fresh berries and cherries.