Today’s Basics topic is all about fat! We’ve covered other macronutrients here on the Nutrition Stripped blog such as carbohydrates, protein, and digestion, and now the list is growing! Out of all the macronutrients, people have the most misconceptions about by fat! Today I’m sharing a breakdown of food sources of healthy fats, the function of fat in the human body, how fats are digested, and how our bodies store fat. If I haven’t lost you yet, keep reading on to learn the basics of healthy fat from a dietitian’s point of view. Let’s jump in!

Avoiding trans fats can be tricky because food labels can be misleading. Even though trans fats have been banned by the FDA, foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving can read 0 grams of trans fat on the food label. To determine if the food contains trans fats, check the ingredient list for “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” oil. While 0.5 grams may seem small, eating several portions of foods containing some trans fat may be enough to affect your health.

If your focus is on specifically cutting calories from your meal plan to hit your goals faster, you may be considering slashing fat from your diet. That is probably the last thing you want to do. Not only have the benefits of a low-fat diet come into question in some recent research, the importance of healthy fats in your diet can’t be stressed enough. These beneficial fats have been shown to: 
Cheese often gets a bad-rap for being a high-fat food—especially hard, full-fat cheeses like Parmesan. While it is true that cheeses have more saturated fats than plant based foods, they (especially Parmesan, which contains 8 grams fat and 5 grams saturated fat per ounce), provide loads of other nutrients as well. In fact, Parm tops the cheese charts in terms of its bone-building calcium content, providing nearly a third of your daily calcium needs. Ounce for ounce, it has more protein than any other food—and yes, we are including meat and eggs on that list!
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).
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.
We used to think that “fat” was a dirty word. But in fact, there are many healthy fats that can reduce high cholesterol, promote good cholesterol, and be a part of a heart-healthy diet. The secret is to focus on the right fats. “Good fats are monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados, and there are also the polyunsaturated fats found in omega-3 fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds,” says Barbara Mendez, MS, RPh, a pharmacist and nutritional consultant in New York City. “These fats help reduce total cholesterol while raising the ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, cholesterol. This protects the heart from heart disease and also helps reduce total body inflammation. Additionally, these fats nourish healthy hair, skin, nails, and bones.”

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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.

Olive oil is one of the easiest ways to dress your salad. It has anti-inflammatory properties and contains antioxidants. It’s also considered a monounsaturated fatty acid, which is a healthy dietary fat. “Olive oil has been shown to lower the risk of stroke. But be sure to get extra virgin for the most benefits,” advises Warren. Create an array of infused olive oils to not only reap the health benefits but also avoid boring your taste buds. Seamless ways to infuse oils include adding pepper flakes, garlic cloves, or thyme in an airtight glass bottle with your favorite olive oil. Let it marinate overnight—the end result is a vibrant topping for your next salad.

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.
These small but mighty seeds are loaded with omega-3s, fiber, protein, essential minerals, and antioxidants. Their popularity as a superfood is well deserved—you can toss a tablespoon into your smoothies for a quick fat, fiber, and protein boost, or soak them overnight for a ready-when-you-wake-up breakfast parfait. You can even use them to add nutritional punch to your desserts.
There are many great sources of saturated animal fats. Grass-fed beef and dairy (including cheese, butter, and ghee) and organic, pasture-raised chicken (meat and eggs) are excellent sources and increasingly available in grocery stores. Grass-fed beef and dairy are rich in a number of nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, CLA, healthy proteins, vitamin E, B12, thiamine, riboflavin, creatine, iron & zinc.
Smear some toast or apple slices with peanut butter and you have a breakfast or snack with staying power. The unsaturated fats in peanut butter help make the meal satisfying by making it take longer to digest, and it’s also packed with protein. Stick to natural peanut butter to avoid the added sugars and unhealthy partially hydrogenated fats that are added to other kinds of peanut butter.
Yes, that’s right. One ounce (about 3 fingers' worth) of dark chocolate counts as one serving and contains about 9 grams of fat. About half of its fat content is saturated, but it also contains healthy fats and numerous other healthy nutrients—vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and flavonoids (plant-based antioxidants). And did you know a 1-ounce portion of dark chocolate also boasts 3 grams of fiber? Practically a vegetable. Aim for a cocoa content of at least 70 percent for the highest levels of flavonoids.
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.
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.
All foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats. Even healthy foods like chicken and nuts have small amounts of saturated fat, though much less than the amounts found in beef, cheese, and ice cream. Saturated fat is mainly found in animal foods, but a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.
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.

Polyunsaturated fats can primarily be found in plant-based foods and oils. Similar to monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can decrease the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of blood cholesterol (9). A certain type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be particularly beneficial for heart health. They not only lower the risk of coronary artery disease but can also lower blood pressure and protect against irregular heartbeats (9). Omega-3 fatty acids can be easily consumed by eating fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and trout.
Incorporating healing fats into your diet has many health benefits. Healing fats provide building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. They also function as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K and aid in the absorption of minerals. Healing fats are essential for a healthy body and lifestyle. Let’s look more closely at several healing fats.
The discovery that monounsaturated fat could be healthful came from the Seven Countries Study during the 1960s. It revealed that people in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean region enjoyed a low rate of heart disease despite a high-fat diet. The main fat in their diet, though, was not the saturated animal fat common in countries with higher rates of heart disease. It was olive oil, which contains mainly monounsaturated fat. This finding produced a surge of interest in olive oil and the "Mediterranean diet," a style of eating regarded as a healthful choice today.

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.
Finally, many experts say studies on saturated fat often look at people eating it on top of an otherwise unhealthy diet—for example, alongside refined carbs, sugar, and not enough veggies and fiber—in which case it could certainly increase inflammation and heart disease risk. A reasonable portion of coconut oil on top of fibrous veggies (or grass-fed butter in a saute pan) in a low-sugar, whole foods, plant-based diet, however, comes with health benefits. My advice: think about saturated fat as part of your healthful diet but not as a main ingredient. Coconut oil is great, but it’s not kale.
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.
Besides the healthy fats, dark chocolate comes packed with antioxidants, principally polyphenols including flavonoids such as epicatechin, catechin and notably the procyanidins, which can help fight off free-radicals and improve blood flow to the brain (which might make you smarter!). A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a few ounces of dark chocolate a day is all you need to reap the benefits.
This green fruit is packed with healthy fats, specifically monounsaturated fats that help raise your good cholesterol levels as part of heart-healthy diet. “Because avocados are high in calories and fat, moderation makes sense when enjoying them,” says Zimmerman. “Add avocado slices to a sandwich or dice them up in a salad.” Try this simple, healthy avocado salad.

Dr. Michael and Dr. Mary Eades in their book Good Calories, Bad Calories write about the role that saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil play in immune health stating that the “loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi”.
Fish such as salmon and sardines are an excellent source of omega-3 fats, as is flaxseed. Nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts) all contain different mixes of good fats. Egg yolks contain a terrific mix of both saturated and unsaturated fat (as does beef). Coconut contains a particularly good form of fat known as MCT (medium chain triglycerides). And extra virgin olive oil is a rich source of healthy monounsaturated fat.
Monounsaturated fats are considered one of the healthiest types of fats to eat, and are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. They are found in olives, olive oil, avocados, nuts, nut butters, as well as sesame oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. (Be aware that most Canola oil in the US and Canada is GMO unless specifically labeled as non-GMO or organic.)
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