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.
Trans fat. Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. This is the worst type of fat since it not only raises bad LDL cholesterol but also lowers good HDL levels. Artificial trans fats can also create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions and contributes to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but solidify if refrigerated. These heart-healthy fats are typically a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E, a nutrient often lacking in American diets. They can be found in olives; avocados; hazelnuts; almonds; Brazil nuts; cashews; sesame seeds; pumpkin seeds; and olive, canola, and peanut oils.
Although fat got a lot of flak in the carb-crazy ‘90s, fat is actually very important to a healthy diet. Fat comes in two main forms: unsaturated and saturated fat. Unsaturated fats are oils — the kind that are fluid at room temperature (such as olive and canola oils). Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think a stick of butter or glob of coconut oil).
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.
If you’re wondering about fat and its place in your diet, you’re not alone. Each year the International Food Information Council Foundation conducts a nationwide survey of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. When the results were released earlier this year, fat was found to be one of the biggest topics of nutritional confusion. Research around the importance of fats in the diet continues to grow and results repeatedly underscore the importance of a healthy meal plan that focuses on moderation vs. a restrictive diet. When it comes to healthy fats, here’s what you need to know.
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.
Following a high monounsaturated fat diet can be beneficial for improving insulin sensitivity in both individuals who have, or do not have high blood sugar levels. One study found that following a high monounsaturated fat diet for three months managed to improve insulin sensitivity by up to nine percent (14). This was followed by another study which found participants who had metabolic syndrome and followed a high monounsaturated fat diet for twelve weeks had a significant reduction in insulin resistance (15).
The oils you cook with are a great way to incorporate healthy fats. For high-heat cooking, coconut and avocado oils are best because they have a higher smoke point, the temperature at which the fat or oil begins to break down due to heat. Avocado oil has the highest smoke point (570 degrees). The smoke point of ghee is 485 degrees and extra virgin coconut oil is 350 degrees.
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.
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.
Out of all the fish in the sea, tuna is one of the highest sources of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Canned light tuna is one of the best and most affordable fish for weight loss, especially from your belly! One study in the Journal of Lipid Research showed that omega 3 fatty acid supplementation had the profound ability to turn off abdominal fat genes. And while you’ll find two types of fatty acids in cold water fish and fish oils—DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—researchers say DHA can be 40 to 70 percent more effective than EPA at regulating fat genes in the abdomen, preventing belly fat cells from expanding in size.
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However, many experts disagree with the report’s conclusions on a few fronts. First, the link is based on the reasoning that saturated fat raises total cholesterol levels, but many studies suggest the link between higher cholesterol numbers and heart disease risk has been overstated. And while LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, there are different types of LDL, and the total number may be less important than the composition of the actual particles. Small, dense particles are inflammatory and associated with heart disease risk, while larger particles are not.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found only in animal foods. Unlike fatty acids, it doesn’t provide energy. However, your body needs it in order to produce steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids that help digest fat. All of your cells make cholesterol; in fact, most of the cholesterol in your blood comes from your body rather than the food you eat. Dietary cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol levels much, if at all, nor does it increase heart disease risk.
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.
One medium avocado has approximately 23 grams of fat, but it is primarily monounsaturated fat. Plus, a medium avocado contains 40 percent of your daily fiber needs, is naturally sodium- and cholesterol-free, and is a good source of lutein, an antioxidant that may protect your vision. Try enjoying it in place of foods that are higher in less-healthy saturated fat—use 1/5 of a medium avocado to replace the mayo on your sandwich, the butter on your toast, or the sour cream on your baked potato. Keep in mind that they’re pretty high in calories, so you generally want to stick to no more than 1/4 an avocado at a time.
Fats also help us digest important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K that keep our brains, cells, hormones, tissues, hair, skin, and nails healthy (1). Fat provides the structural component to many cell membranes which are essential for cellular development and carrying various messages through our body quickly via hormones. In fact, fats are vital to hormonal health. I’ve worked with many clients recovering from eating disorders or very restrictive diets who have gone years without periods due to their low body fat percentage. There’s a fine line between wanting to be “toned” and “ripped” and being a healthy woman able to provide your body with enough fat reserves for healthy hormones and hormonal production. Fat is crucial for our bodies!
A fascinating Swedish study found that when diabetics ate a low-carb, high-fat diet (50 percent fat, 20 percent low-glycemic carbs, and 30 percent protein) they lost equal amounts of fat after 6 months (4 kg) as a group that ate a low-fat, high-carb diet (30 percent fat, 60 percent carbs, and 10 percent protein). The low-carb, high-fat group decreased insulin and had better blood sugar regulation than the high-carb group, indicating better metabolic chemistry.
And it’s not just walnuts, a study from the International Journal Of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders found that even when two groups of participants consumed the same amount of calories, the group which had more calories from fatty almonds lost the most weight. When it comes down to it, all nuts will be great sources of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fats, just in varying amounts. If you’re looking to slim down, read our essential guide to the best nuts for weight loss.
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)
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. (10)
It is true. When looking to lose weight or gain muscle, people often focus on their protein and carbohydrate intakes. But fat can be just as important. Fats help to keep hormone levels balanced which means you can recover more quickly, and more effectively from your physical activities. Play around with what you are eating by adding some healthy fats. What you may see is greater muscle gains and leaner curves.
The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain and other rheumatoid problems, as well as certain skin ailments. Some research has even shown that omega-3s can boost the immune system and help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer's disease.
Naturally fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These are "good" fats that help keep your heart healthy. They may also help keep your brain sharp, especially as you get older. The American Heart Association suggests eating two servings of fatty fish a week. A serving is 3 ounces -- about the size of a deck of cards. Try it baked, grilled, or poached.
All fats and oils contain fatty acids. You may be most familiar with Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil. When you eat healthy fats and oils, the digestion process enables the fatty acids to be absorbed into the blood. Fatty acids are a component of fats and oils that become the building blocks of your body, helping to create cells membranes and nerve sheathing among other body functions.