If so, you’re not alone. Fat in foods has been vilified for the past few decades, as low-fat and non-fat foods became the norm and we were told that cutting even healthy fats out of the diet would help us get the body we want. In fact, it’s one of the biggest nutrition lies that the public’s been told throughout history.
We’re only now realizing the truth: not all fats are created equally. Our bodies need fat more specifically, they need healthy fats. And as high-fat diets like the ketogenic diet continue to gain widespread popularity, more and more people are eager to know what fats qualify as healthy.
So what counts as fat, what’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats and how can you be sure you’re getting enough healthy fats in your diet? Keep reading for a list of healthy fats and why you may want to add them to your diet.
What Are Healthy Fats?
Fats are an important part of the diet, but not all fats have the same effects on health. While good fats can actually lower cholesterol levels, boost brain function and support satiety, filling up on unhealthy fats can contribute to chronic disease and weight gain.
A good rule of thumb is to steer clear of highly-processed fats that are pumped full of additives and unhealthy ingredients. Refined vegetable oils, processed meats and snack foods like chips, crackers and baked goods are generally high in disease-causing, artery-clogging trans fats that should be avoided at all costs.
Conversely, the key for finding healthy fats to eat is to look for ingredients that are unprocessed and naturally high in fats. Avocados, olives and olive oil are just a few foods with healthy fats that can help benefit your health.
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated Fat
Healthy fats can be broken down into two main categories: unsaturated fats and saturated fatty acids.
So what is saturated fat? The saturated fat definition includes fatty acids without double bonds. Saturated fat foods include ingredients like coconut oil. Although once considered unhealthy and artery-clogging, more and more research has shown that saturated fats can be included as part of a healing diet in moderation.
Meanwhile, the official unsaturated fat definition encompasses any type of fatty acid that contains at least one double bond within the chain. These fats are further classified as either a monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat based on the number of double bonds they contain. Unsaturated fats can include foods like vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
Unlike saturated fats, the benefits of unsaturated fats have long been established. In fact, studies show that unsaturated fatty acids can help promote weight loss, reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease.
When comparing saturated vs. unsaturated fat, it’s generally recommended that unsaturated fatty acids should make up the majority of your fat intake. One study in 2015 showed that replacing just 5 percent of calories from saturated fats with an equal amount from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids resulted in a 25 percent and 15 percent reduced risk of heart disease, respectively. However, both offer a unique set of benefits and can be included in moderation as part of a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Top Healthy Fats for Your Body
Not all fats are created equal, but the ones on this healthy fats list pack a lot of punch. From lowering bad cholesterol and helping shed excess weight to giving you shiny hair and strong nails, your body will reap the benefits of these healthy fats.
The benefits of avocados are so numerous that they’re one of the healthiest fruits you can consume, not to mention one of the top healthy fats. Avocado nutrition is rich in monounsaturated fats, which raises levels of good cholesterol while lowering the bad talk about a double-whammy. Avocados are also packed with the benefits of vitamin E, which help fight free radical damage, boost immunity and act as an anti-aging nutrient for your skin.
Plus, it’s chock-full of healthy protein; in fact, it has more than any other fruit. For pregnant women, avocado is also one of the best folate foods, which is an important micronutrient that can help reduce the risk of birth defects to ensure proper growth and development. (8)
Not only does coconut oil top the charts as one of the healthiest cooking oil options, but you can also apply coconut oil on your skin or use coconut oil for your hair as well. It’s rich in medium-chain fatty acids, which are easy for your body to digest, not readily stored by the body as fat and small in size, allowing them to infuse cells with energy almost immediately.
These fatty acids also improve brain and memory function. Plus, the high amount of natural saturated fats in coconut oil means it increases good cholesterol and promotes heart health while the antioxidants found in coconut oil make it an effective anti-inflammatory food to help potentially reduce arthritis symptoms.
Best of all, adding coconut oil to your diet is easy. You can use it for cooking or baking or even try applying it directly to the skin. Beware that when cooking directly with coconut oil, the flavor can be a bit overpowering for some. If that’s the case, try using a bit less. It’s also important to note that, at room temperature, coconut oil is solid, so it’s not the best choice when you need a healthy fat in liquid form. Additionally, when choosing a coconut oil, extra virgin varieties are best, as refined or processed coconut oils can eliminate many of the health benefits.
Is olive oil good for you? Believe it or not, the olive oil benefits are so profound that almost any diet should include it. First, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is great for heart health. In fact, olive oil consumption has been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol levels and improved blood vessel function. The high amount of antioxidants in EVOO means it protects your cells from damage. It also helps improve memory and cognitive function and works as an anti-inflammatory agent. Since inflammation is at the root of most diseases, this is a biggie!
Unfortunately, buying this healthy fat isn’t as easy as just grabbing the first bottle you see. Make sure to pick only extra virgin varieties of the oil, which means no chemicals are involved when the oil is refined. Unfortunately, many common brands have been shown to fail the standards for extra virgin olive oils, meaning it’s important to choose wisely.
Some tips for recognizing real EVOO look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council and check the harvesting date on the label. Additionally, if it’s labeled as “light,” “pure” or a “blend,” it isn’t virgin-quality. And finally, opt for dark bottles, as they protect the oil from oxidation. EVOO isn’t recommended for cooking at high temperatures because of its low smoke point, but it’s terrific for making salad dressings or drizzling over breads or cooked foods.
A welcome addition for vegetarians and vegans, nuts and seeds are a terrific option for getting more healthy fats into your diets. For starters, they’re extremely easy to incorporate into your diet; they’re also fairly affordable and easily transportable, making them perfect for snacking. Aside from being a great source of healthy fats, nuts and seeds offer a wealth of benefits for our bodies. Regularly eating them can help lower bad LDL cholesterol to keep your arteries clear and your heart healthy. And like other foods rich in omega-3s, nuts and seeds are also considered brain foods, and certain types are even recommended to help improve mood and defeat depression.
The beauty of nuts and seeds is that you’re spoiled for choice. Walnuts are a great high-fat
option with 5 grams of fat per serving, and almonds are packed with vitamin E, but there are so many nuts to choose from that you really can’t go wrong. In fact, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts all have their own delicious nutritional profiles and are rich in healthy fats like oleic acid. You can also opt for nut butters, which make a great snack when paired with apple slices or carrot sticks. Look for nut butters with just one or two ingredients and skip those with added sugars and fillers. You can also try toasting nuts and sprinkling them over salads for an instant boost of healthy fats.
For seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds are two of the top choices. They’re both high in fiber and fat but low in carbs. Add seeds to coconut yogurt or sprinkle in your smoothie..
MCTs, aka medium-chain triglycerides, are a type of saturated fat jam-packed with heath benefits. They’re easily digested and sent to the liver, where they can give your metabolism a kick-start.
Try using MCT oil in homemade salad dressings, adding it to smoothies and shakes or replacing about one-third of the coconut oil in your recipes for MCT oil when you’re baking.
Benefits of Healthy Fats
Fat is absolutely essential to health. It helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, it keeps your hair and skin healthy, forms the foundation of your cell membranes, supplies energy and provides insulation to help regulate your body’s temperature.
It also has several other positive effects on health as well. Although it may seem counterintuitive, eating good fats for weight loss can be extremely beneficial. Fat is digested more slowly than carbohydrates and protein to promote satiety and helps bump up the flavor of foods. Both human and animal studies have found that fat can suppress food intake later in the day, which could potentially enhance weight loss.
Certain types of fat also possess anti-inflammatory properties, which can help protect against chronic disease and help improve health. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have been shown to relieve inflammation and reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. Monounsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, may help increase good HDL cholesterol, lower triglyceride levels and decrease the risk of heart disease.
Plus, eating a good variety of foods high in fat can also boost brain function. Loading up on the healthy fat foods can soothe inflammation and promote blood flow to the brain to enhance cognitive function. In particular, medium-chain fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats play a critical role in brain function and development.
Healthy Fats in Ayurveda, TCM & Traditional Medicine
Healthy fats have long been recognized for their medicinal properties in traditional forms of medicine like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
According to Ayurveda, fats are used to promote healthy skin, support satiety and calm the nerves. On an Ayurvedic diet, it’s generally recommended to steer clear of trans fats and include plenty of vegetable-based fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fat is also encouraged in moderation by increasing your intake of foods like coconut oil.
Healthy ingredients that are high in fat are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a variety of ailments. Avocados are considered cooling and are believed to moisten the lungs, nourish the blood and treat stomach ulcers.
Healthy Fats vs. Unhealthy Fats
A well-balanced and nutritious diet should include a good mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with moderate amounts of saturated fats from healthy sources as well. These types of fat have been associated with a wide array of health benefits and can reduce your risk of chronic disease to protect and preserve your health.
But while there’s still a good amount of debate on the question “Is saturated fat bad?,” there’s no arguing that trans fats should be cut out of your diet altogether. Trans fats are often added to foods through a process called hydrogenation, which is used to increase the flavor and texture while extending the shelf-life of foods like vegetable oils.
Trans fats are typically found in highly-processed fatty foods such as crackers, cakes, donuts and pastries. Studies show that eating this unhealthy type of fat can have detrimental effects on health; one study in the New England Journal of Medicine even reported that each 2 percent increase in calories consumed from trans fats nearly doubled the risk of coronary heart disease.
Healthy Fats vs. Carbs
Along with fat and protein, carbs are one of the three main macronutrients found in the diet. They are found throughout the food supply, but are highest in foods like starches, grains and sugary sweets.
Compared to fat, carbs are significantly lower in calories. While fat contains about nine calories per gram, carbohydrates clock in at just four calories per gram. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better for your health — or your waistline.
In fact, while carbohydrates from whole grain, fiber-rich sources can be beneficial, refined carbohydrates found in foods like candies, white bread, baked goods and sweets provide little in terms of nutrition apart from extra calories and sugar. According to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, refined carb intake was associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease while consumption of whole grains and polyunsaturated fats was linked to a lower risk.
Just like when selecting healthy sources of fat to include in your diet over fried foods and processed junk, opting for nutrient-dense carbohydrates is key. Go for healthy, gluten-free grains like quinoa, amaranth, brown rice and oats. Include a good variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes in your diet. Limit your intake of heavily processed and refined carbs to help improve the quality of your diet.
How Much Fat Do You Need? How to Get Healthy Fats Into Your Diet
Most sources recommend getting at least 20–30 percent of total calories from fat, although this amount can vary quite a bit.
The majority of your fat intake should be from unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. So how much saturated fat per day should you aim for? Both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and World Health Organization currently recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. Stick to healthy sources of saturated fat such as coconut oil and MCT oil rather than fried foods or processed meats that are laden with additives and harmful ingredients.
Wondering how to eat more healthy fats to help improve your health? There are plenty of healthy fat diet plan options out there, but the easiest way to get started is by simply adding a few nutritious ingredients into the meals you already eat. Try swapping out the low-fat yogurt for a full-fat variety, sprinkling nuts and seeds into your oatmeal, salads and smoothies and drizzling olive oil over roasted veggies and side dishes for an added dose of healthy fats.
You can also try experimenting with new recipes and dishes that feature healthy saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat foods.
Although fat is an essential part of the diet, keep in mind that most high-fat foods are also considered calorie-dense foods. When increasing your intake of healthy fats, it’s important to account for this by making modifications to your diet, such as decreasing your intake of refined carbs or sweets. Without making a few simple swaps to your diet, adding high-fat, high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain.
Additionally, adding plenty of nutritious fats to your diet is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to health. Be sure to round out your diet with plenty of protein foods as well as a good variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains to make sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs, and pair a well-balanced diet with regular physical activity and a healthy lifestyle for best results.
Healthy Fats Final Thoughts
What are healthy fats? While your body needs fat to function and thrive, not all fats are created equal. Healthy fats come from unprocessed whole foods and can help prevent chronic disease and promote better health.
There are several different types of fat, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids.
The main difference between saturated and unsaturated fat is the number of double bonds each contains, as well as the unique effects on cholesterol levels and heart health. However, both can be included as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Fats have been linked to many beneficial effects on health and have been shown to help improve heart health, boost brain function, promote satiety and enhance nutrient absorption.
A few examples of healthy fats include foods like avocados, MCT oil, nuts and seeds, olive oil and coconut oil.
Enjoy a good mix of these heart-healthy fats and pair them with a balanced diet to help optimize your health.