June 10th, 2011
08:24 AM ET

What foods have healthy fat?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Asked by Mindy J. of Denham Springs, Louisiana

I recently starting tracking my calories, carbohydrates, fat, and protein. So far I have been meeting all of my goals except for the amount of fat grams. Do I need to meet a minimum number of fat grams? If so, what are some healthy options to get enough fat grams into my diet?

Expert answer:

This is a great question and brings up several important points. First of all, I am impressed by your tracking dedication. Research shows that people who keep a food journal lose double the weight of those who don't.

I do suggest, however, that you don't get too caught up in the numbers and hitting exact goals every day. Calorie, fat, carb and protein intake naturally fluctuate somewhat day to day based on activity, menstrual cycle, social events and even your schedule.

Limiting fat is important for weight loss as fat has more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates. Limiting sugar and refined carbohydrates (carbohydrates that are not made with whole grains) is also critical for both weight loss and total health so this is more important than counting carbs.

Getting adequate amounts of lean protein is essential to maintain lean body mass and help control hunger. Rather than counting protein grams, I'd rather see you getting a small to moderate serving of healthy protein (lean meat, low fat dairy, legumes, nuts and seeds) at most eating occasions.

As to your specific question, the range of fat percentage suggested for optimal health is 20-35 percent. While you could go lower than this to lose weight, it is not a great idea for a prolonged period of time. Fat is essential for the absorption of the very important fat soluble vitamins including vitamins D, A, K and E that help protect your vision, keep your immune system functioning properly, and maintain bone health.

Fat is also used to manufacture hormones in the body, is part of the membrane lining every cell in your body, and is part of the sheath surrounding every nerve cell in your body allowing them to communicate effectively.

Choosing healthy fats in portion controlled servings is essential for a healthy diet. The best choices are the unsaturated fats including fatty fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.

For weight loss, it is essential to watch your serving sizes, so I recommend that my patients measure serving sizes of fat whenever possible if they are trying to lose weight because it is very hard to 'eyeball' a tablespoon of oil or 2 tablespoons of nuts. Here are a few ideas for including healthy fat in your diet on a regular basis:

1. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of chopped nuts or seeds on low fat or nonfat greek yogurt with fresh fruit for breakfast or as a snack

2. Add 1/4 sliced avocado to turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with romaine lettuce and tomato for lunch

3. Cook vegetables in a few tsp of olive oil or make a homemade salad dressing with 1 tablespoon olive oil (or flaxseed oil, another healthy fat), 2 tablespoons of vinegar and a little Dijon mustard. (Note it is especially important to eat vegetables with a little fat as vegetables are an excellent source of several of the fat soluble vitamins)

To calculate the number of fat grams you would need to eat to total 25 percent of your total calories (this is what I recommend for patients), do the following:

1. Multiply your daily calorie goal by 0.25

2. Divide this number by 9

3. This equals your minimum total daily fat grams.

4. According to the dietary exchanges, a serving of fat contains 5 grams of fat so you can divide this number by 5 to calculate your daily servings of fat

For example, if you were eating 1200 calories per day: 1200 x .25 = 300 calories/9 = 33 g/5 = 6.5 servings of fat per day. Note that more than likely you get fat elsewhere in your diet (meat, cheese, packaged foods, dairy that is not fat free), so you should adjust your daily fat exchanges downward to account for the fat in other foods that you eat. Again, you don't have to hit this number every day, but try to average out to this number over the course of the week if your goal is weight loss.

Follow Dr. Jampolis on Twitter

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.