Consuming high levels of calories – regardless of the source – can lead to weight gain or being overweight. Consuming high levels of saturated or trans fats can also lead to heart disease and stroke. Health experts generally recommend replacing saturated fats and trans fats with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – while still maintaining a nutritionally-adequate diet.
Fat came under scrutiny in the 1960s when the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to publish a review on sugar, fat, and heart disease. The sugar industry funded the research to cover up warning signs, which emerged in the 1950s, that sugar caused heart disease (1). Shifting the blame away from sugar, the researchers singled out saturated fat as the cause of heart disease.
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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. (21)
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Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke. In addition to reducing blood pressure, raising HDL, and lowering triglycerides, polyunsaturated fats may help prevent lethal heart rhythms from arising. Evidence also suggests they may help reduce the need for corticosteroid medications in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Studies linking omega-3s to a wide range of other health improvements, including reducing risk of dementia, are inconclusive, and some of them have major flaws, according to a systematic review of the evidence by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
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Monounsaturated fat can be found in a variety of foods and oils. There is a consistent amount of research which suggests that monounsaturated fat foods can actually improve blood cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases (8). Foods which contain monounsaturated fats include nuts, vegetable oils, peanut butter and avocados.
The worst type of dietary fat is the kind known as trans fat. It is a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation that is used to turn healthy oils into solids and to prevent them from becoming rancid. Trans fats have no known health benefits and that there is no safe level of consumption. Therefore, they have been officially banned in the United States.
The type of fatty acids that make up coconut oil’s saturated fat content is medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and are about 65% of its fat content. Unlike long chain fatty acids (the majority of fats in our diet) which must go through modification prior to being digested and absorbed in our bodies, medium chain triglycerides are passively diffused from our gastrointestinal tract to the portal system. In other words, our bodies find it super easy to break down the fat before getting rapidly absorbed and used for energy by the body. Coming from a clinical background, MCT’s are very commonly used in treating people who have malabsorption issues, are on ketogenic diets, or are increasing calories without much volume.
Omega-3 fatty acids promote health in several ways. They reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels (8). Omega-3 fats are also essential for brain and eye health (9).
One cup of black olives has 15 grams of fat, but again, it is mainly monounsaturated. Plus, no matter what variety of olive you enjoy, they all contain many other beneficial nutrients as well, such as hydroxytyrosol, a phytonutrient that has long been linked to cancer prevention. New research is showing that this phytonutrient may play a role in reducing bone loss as well. And if you have allergies or other inflammatory conditions, olives might be just the snack for you as research suggests that olive extracts function as anti-histamines on the cellular level. Even with all these benefits, it is important to be mindful of your serving size as olives can be high in sodium. Stick to 5 large or 10 small olives as the perfect portion.
Additionally, a higher consumption of eggs can reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including factors like excess body fat, high blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol levels. Having any of these conditions makes you more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes. A 2016 study found that adults over 40 years old who regularly ate eggs significantly reduced their risk of metabolic syndrome. (10)
Healthy fats are unsaturated fats that are found in fatty fish like salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds, plant oils that are liquid at room temperature like olive oil, and coconut oil. Coconut oil is contested as a healthy fat because it is a saturated fat, but because the majority of its fat content is medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), I consider them an exception.
From time to time, try swapping other meats for a serving of fatty fish that is high in protein and Omega-3s. Popular types of fatty fish include salmon, anchovies, Chilean sea bass, mackerel, and sardines. Those who consumed this type of fish regularly were found to have less of a risk for a heart attack, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Warren adds that consuming fatty fish has also been linked to an improved mental ability and may help prevent cancer.
Although for several decades the American Heart Association and other health organizations have advised people to reduce their saturated fat intake, studies have consistently failed to show a link between saturated fat and heart disease. Because of this, the role of natural saturated fats in a healthy diet is now being reconsidered. All in all, saturated fats appear to be neutral in their health effects.
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The dietary reference intake (DRI) for fat in adults is 20% to 35% of total calories from fat. That is about 44 grams to 77 grams of fat per day if you eat 2,000 calories a day. It is recommended to eat more of some types of fats because they provide health benefits. It is recommended to eat less of other types of fat due to the negative impact on health.
Saturated fat. This is a type of fat that comes mainly from animal sources of food, such as red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
And if you're thinking fish-oil capsules will help you avoid the contamination risks of fresh fish, think again. Because supplements are not regulated in the U.S., Sandon says, some may contain concentrated amounts of the same toxins found in fresh fish. And because the oil is so concentrated, the supplements can also produce an unpleasant body odor.
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Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature and come mostly from animal products, with the exception of tropical oils. Taking in too much saturated fat is linked with raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood and increasing internal inflammation. Healthy adults should limit their saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of total calories. For a person eating a 2000 calorie diet, this would be 22 grams of saturated fat or less per day. If you have elevated LDL cholesterol levels, it is recommended to reduce saturated fat intake to no more than 7% of total calories. Foods high in saturated fat include:
What these studies highlight is that when cutting down on saturated fats in your diet, it’s important to replace them with the right foods. For example, swapping animal fats for vegetable oils—such as replacing butter with olive oil—can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk for disease. However, swapping animal fats for refined carbohydrates-such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a bagel or pastry-won’t have the same benefits. That’s because eating refined carbohydrates or sugary foods can have a similar negative effect on your cholesterol levels, your risk for heart disease, and your weight.
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. (42, 43) Stick to healthy sources of saturated fat such as grass-fed beef, coconut oil and MCT oil rather than fried foods or processed meats that are laden with additives and harmful ingredients.
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While all unsaturated fats are good for you, you'll get more benefits from omega-3 fatty acids. These unsaturated fatty acids can't be produced by your body, so you need to get them from your diet. And they're crucial to your well-being, since they promote good cardiovascular health, play a role in brain function and offer anti-inflammatory benefits. They're also great for your cholesterol, since they increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels.
Monounsaturated fats. When you dip your bread in olive oil at an Italian restaurant, you're getting mostly monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond. The result is that it has two fewer hydrogen atoms than a saturated fat and a bend at the double bond. This structure keeps monounsaturated fats liquid at room temperature.