Healthy fats have numerous benefits for your body when included as part of a healthy balanced diet. A diet which includes moderate to high amounts of monounsaturated fats can be useful in weight loss, as long as you don’t eat more calories than you are burning. A large study which combined the results of twenty four other studies found that participants who followed a high-monounsaturated fat diet had more effective weight loss than those who followed high-carbohydrate diets (10).
Leading the charge of the healthy fat brigade are avocados. This wonder fruit is essentially Mother Nature’s butter. It’s rich, creamy, and—unlike butter—an acceptable food to eat all on its own. While you should still limit yourself to a quarter or half of an avocado per meal, you have no reason to fear its fats. Avocados pack in healthy monounsaturated fats that contain oleic acid, which can actually help quiet feelings of hunger, according to a Food Function study. They also give you two things butter doesn’t: protein and fiber.
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.
Most nuts and seeds are good healthy-fat choices, but almonds and walnuts are at the top of many experts’ lists as a great part of a heart-healthy diet to lower high cholesterol. “Almonds and walnuts are quick, delicious, and easy for a mid-morning or mid-day snack,” says Maria Haisley, RD, a clinical dietitian at Elkhart General Hospital in Indiana. “Make your own trail mix using your favorite ingredients or simply add to salads. Try using ground almonds as a coating on baked chicken or fish.” This chicken fingers recipe is a delicious way to do just that.
Other studies have confirmed the health benefits of following a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet. In one study, women lost more weight following a low-carbohydrate diet than a low-fat diet (5). In addition to weight loss, studies also show that low-carb, high-fat diets reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce triglycerides while raising HDL cholesterol levels (6,7).
Omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids are both a type of polyunsaturated fat. For a healthy body, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids need to be eaten in about a 1:1 ratio. However, the standard American diet contains about 15 to 16 times as many omega 6s as omega 3s, so the ratio is way out of whack. Omega 6 fatty acids eaten in a high concentration like that become pro-inflammatory and promote heart disease.
Several studies explore and show the this type of saturated fat in coconut does not negatively affect cholesterol levels nor overall heart health like we were once told. Some studies have shown coconut oil moderately increases metabolic rate, which is often a “selling” point that it helps boost your metabolism and contribute to fat loss or weight control. I’ll let these studies here, here, and here tell you what we do know.
Food manufacturers flooded the market with processed foods containing hydrogenated fats and processed sugar. The replacement of saturated fats in the diet with trans fats and sugar resulted in epidemic rates of obesity and its related health complications (2). Rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer have risen since Americans adopted the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
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.
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.
Eating fat can be heart-healthy if you pick the right kind. Too many of us cut fat willy-nilly and replace it with refined carbs, so we miss out on the benefits of healthy fats, says Suzanne Rostler, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Framingham, Mass. What’s more, eating lots of refined carbs—like white bread and white rice—can increase triglyceride levels, which can contribute to heart and blood vessel disease.
Fat tends to be considered “bad” because it is associated with weight gain and high cholesterol. However, certain types of fat give protective benefits to the heart if appropriate portions are consumed. The key is to understand how to choose the right amount of each type of fat, so we should look closely at the ideas of total fat and each type of fat.
Go nuts! Polyunsaturated fats in nuts activate genes that reduce fat storage and improve insulin metabolism. At about 13 grams per one-ounce serving, walnuts are one of the best dietary sources (they also have more omega-3 fatty acids than any other nut). A small Pennsylvania State study found that a diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may help the body respond better to stress and can also help keep diastolic blood pressure levels down.
The reality is, not all fats are created equal. Some are downright bad (like trans fats in margarines), some are misunderstood (like the saturated fat, lauric acid), and some fats are health heroes (like omega-3s). And, don’t get us wrong, eating foods that are packed with the wrong kinds of fat will make you fat, but with all the omegas, and monos, and polys out there, it can be kind of confusing which are which. To make things easier for you, we here at Eat This, Not That! found the best foods with good fats that you can add to your diet. But before you go off on a high-fat binge, remember that—like all food—even these healthy fats should be consumed in moderation.
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.
Since sources of fat are more calorie-dense, it is important to understand what a serving of a fat is equivalent to. For example, one teaspoon of butter, margarine or mayonnaise is one fat serving. For times when you may not have a measuring spoon available, a visual equivalent of one teaspoon is the tip of your thumb. See below for examples of serving sizes for added fats.
The body is able to turn ALA into usable DHA and EPA to some degree, but this isn’t as efficient as getting DHA and EPA directly from food sources that provide it. Even after extensive research, it’s not totally clear how well ALA converts into EPA and DHA or if it has benefits on its own, but health authorities, like those at Harvard Medical School, still consider all sources of omega-3s crucial in the diet. (20)
Dietary fat has been in the limelight since the 1950s, when researcher Ancel Keys conducted a study analyzing the diet patterns of seven different countries as well as their respective rates of heart disease. At the conclusion of the study, he found that higher levels of serum cholesterol were associated with a higher risk of heart disease and believed that a higher intake of foods high in saturated fat was to blame. (44)
Plus, subsequent studies have also found that picking the right types of fat and adding plenty of high-fat foods to your diet could actually bring some big benefits to your health. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when subjects ate either a Mediterranean diet, low-fat diet or low-carb diet, those following a high-fat, low-carb meal plan not only lost the most weight but also drastically reduced their bad cholesterol levels. (2)
Additionally, over 90% of soy, corn, cotton (seed), and canola grown in the US are GMO. Olive oil is not a GMO oil. However, some restaurants blend olive oil with cheaper oil, such as canola oil. There are serious health risks associated with GMO foods, including immune system malfunction, accelerated aging, changes in the gastrointestinal system (leaky gut), and faulty insulin regulation.
The one-time fish oil supplements can really help is if you need to reduce your levels of triglycerides, a dangerous blood fat linked to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that people with extremely high triglycerides get 2 to 4 daily grams of omega-3s (containing EPA and DHA) in capsules -- but only in consultation with their doctors.
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.