Here's the TL; DR version of what you need to know: Both saturated and unsaturated fats have nutritional benefits, but the type of fats that have been scientifically shown to benefit the body the most are omega-3 fatty acids. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA fats are both found primarily in fish while ALA are plant-based fats, found in foods including vegetable oils, nuts, and leafy greens. (Although it is also found in some animal fat, too.)
All of these types of omega-3s benefit the body in many ways, but a new scientific paper recently published in the British Medical Journal specifically linked ALA fats to longevity. Researchers analyzed 41 different studies that looked into the connection between consuming ALA plant-based fats and lifespan, including the risk for developing cardiovascular disease (the number one cause of death in the U.S.). Overall, data from over a million people over the course of 32 years was analyzed. The researchers found that eating high amounts of ALA fats compared with low intake was significantly associated with a lower risk of deaths from all causes—that's pretty major!
"ALA fats are precursors to eicosanoids [signaling molecules] which regulate many body functions, like blood clotting, gene expression, and inhibiting inflammation," registered dietitian Melissa Rifkin, RD, says as to why this type of fat in particular is so intricately linked to longevity. When high levels of inflammation occur in the body for extended periods of time, it can lead to life-threatening diseases and cognitive decline. That's why keeping it in check is so important—and ALA fats can help with that.
Here's more good news about ALA fats: Rifkin says they're found in many foods that are likely already a part of your regular diet. "ALA fats are very commonly found in meals due to their presence in popular cooking oils, like soybean and canola," she says. "ALA is also found in soybean products like tofu, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, and flaxseed oil." The National Institute of Health recommends consuming at least one gram of ALA fats every day. This is pretty easy to do: One tablespoon of canola oil has more than a gram. (A tablespoon of flaxseed oil has a full seven grams.) An ounce of walnuts has more than double the recommended daily requirement, too.
Rifkin says it's important to know that even though ALA fats are super beneficial, it's still important to get plenty of EPA and DHA fats because they are especially important for brain health. If you are vegetarian or vegan and don't eat fish (or you have an allergy), she recommends an omega-3 supplement. Or, integrate seaweed and algae into your meals—two vegan foods that contain EPA and DHA, as well as ALA.
If you're looking for some meal and snack ideas that put ALA plant-based fats front and center, check out the five recipes below.
5 recipes high in ALA fats:
1. Honey, walnut, and flax banana bread
Walnuts and flaxseeds are both high in ALA fats and core ingredients in this delicious banana bread recipe. This bread is full of fiber and protein, making a slice a great well-rounded breakfast to pair with your morning coffee or tea.
Get the recipe: honey, walnut, and flax banana bread
2. Spirulina chia seed pudding
Chia seeds are another excellent source of ALAs; one tablespoon contains what's recommended for the entire day. Here, they're incorporated into a five-ingredient vegan pudding. This simple snack also is made with spirulina, which has EPA and DHA fats as well as ALAs.
Get the recipe: spirulina chia seed pudding
3. Garlic edamame
Besides having ALA fats, edamame is a good source of protein and fiber. In this recipe, they're lightly seasoned with garlic, star anise, peppercorn, and soy sauce.
Get the recipe: garlic edamame
4. Navy bean soup
Being high in ALAs is just another reason why beans are a core food for longevity. They also can be used to make a delicious, hearty winter soup, as this recipe shows. Besides the beans, all you need is an onion, carrots, celery, olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper.
Get the recipe: navy bean soup
5. Mexican guacamole
As if there weren't enough reasons to love avocados, the fruit is high in ALAs. Whip up a simple guac to get your fill by following this recipe, which also incorporates cilantro, onion, tomato, and lime juice.
Get the recipe: Mexican guacamole
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of avocado:
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