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!
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.
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.
Flax seeds and chia seeds contain a fat called ALA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid that can aid weight maintenance and may reduce heart disease risks by promoting blood vessel health and reducing inflammation. A recent review in the journal Nutrients found that omega-3s can both enhance fat-burning and decrease hunger levels while a report in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that at a sufficiently high intake, omega-3s improve our ability to metabolize fat by altering the way certain “fat genes” function.
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.
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.
If you’re able to tolerate dairy, full-fat dairy can be an excellent source of heart-healthy fats. Probiotic yogurt, in particular, is a staple on the healthy fats list as it contains beneficial bacteria that can help optimize the health of your gut microbiome to promote better overall health. Upping your intake of probiotics can also support healthy digestion, boost immunity and reduce cholesterol levels. (29)
Fat, fat, fat! Would all of our weight loss problems be solved if we just eliminated fat from our diets? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. We actually need fats -- can't live without them, in fact. Fats are an important part of a healthy diet: They provide essential fatty acids, keep our skin soft, deliver fat-soluble vitamins, and are a great source of energizing fuel. But it's easy to get confused about good fats vs. bad fats, how much fat we should eat, how to avoid artery-clogging trans fats, and the role omega-3 fatty acids play in heart health.
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!
But even as important is their ability to reduce the negative impact of yet another essential type of fatty acid known as omega-6s. Found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cereals, vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine, omega-6s are also considered essential. They support skin health, lower cholesterol, and help make our blood "sticky" so it is able to clot. But when omega-6s aren't balanced with sufficient amounts of omega-3s, problems can ensue.
For years we’ve been told that eating fat will add inches to your waistline, raise cholesterol, and cause a myriad of health problems. But now we know that not all fat is the same. While bad fats can wreck your diet and increase your risk of certain diseases, good fats can protect your brain and heart. In fact, healthy fats—such as omega-3s—are vital to your physical and emotional health. By understanding the difference between good and bad fats and how to include more healthy fat in your diet, you can improve your mood, boost your energy and well-being, and even lose weight.
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)
People often turn to fat free options when trying to lose weight but these foods are very poor choices nutritionally. Fat free foods are more often than not loaded with sugar and additives that act as toxins to the body. Your body is able to recognize the compounds in healthy fats and digest them as a source of fuel. This boost in energy is good for kicking your metabolism into gear which, you guessed it, is good for your weight loss.
Healthy fats in the right ratio are needed for bone mineral density and the prevention of osteoporosis. Fats are involved in calcium metabolism and the vitamins K2 and D are both fat-soluble nutrients that collaborate in building bone. Many factors influence bone health, but providing the building blocks for bone with adequate “good” fats and the ideal omega-3 and -6 ratio can only help.
Ideally, you’ll want to consume minimally-processed foods that are full of heart-healthy, polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, DHA, and EPA), monounsaturated fats (OEA), and the trans fat conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), as well as some medium-chain saturated fats like stearic acid and lauric acid. On the other hand, stick to foods that have low levels of omega-6 fatty acids and other saturated fats (palmitic acid), and zero manmade trans fats (partially hydrogenated oil). According to the Dietary Guidelines, an easy way to do this (besides following this list) is to lessen consumption of the top sources of saturated fats like pizza, burgers, meats, and processed snacks and sweets.
Omega-3 fatty acids. One type of polyunsaturated fat is made up of mainly omega-3 fatty acids and may be especially beneficial to your heart. Omega-3, found in some types of fatty fish, appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, it hasn't yet been determined whether replacements for fish oil — plant-based or krill — have the same health effects as omega-3 fatty acid from fish.
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.
Research has shown that even small amounts of artificial trans fats can increase the risk for heart disease by increasing LDL "bad" cholesterol and decreasing HDL "good" cholesterol. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting trans fat to less than 2 grams per day, including the naturally occurring trans fats. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines simply recommend keeping trans fats consumption as low as possible.
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.
Studies have found that avocados can lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol, boost anti-inflammatory properties, and improve vascular health. It’s very simple to add avocados to just about any salad. “Simply think portion control when integrating it into a weight-loss plan,” says Warren. If you’re concerned about how much fat you’re consuming or simply don’t prefer avocado on its own, try whipping up an avocado-based dressing. Toss an avocado, some Greek yogurt, and seasonings (we like fresh cilantro and parsley) into a blender and enjoy.
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.
Healthy ingredients that are high in fat are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a variety of ailments. Beef, for example, is said to tonify the chi, strengthen the blood, relieve bloating and swelling and keep the spleen healthy. Avocados, on the other hand, are considered cooling and are believed to moisten the lungs, nourish the blood and treat stomach ulcers.
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).
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.
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.
What can make eggs confusing are all the options. Some people advocate eating just egg whites, which is a mistake. Egg yolks are full of nutrients and healthy fats, and to get the full benefits of eggs, you should be consuming it all. Additionally, while egg carton claims can get tricky, the rule of thumb is to opt for free-range eggs, which have been shown to be higher in healthy fats and contain more omega-3s. (24)
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.
Some forms of saturated fats, such as coconut oil, are comprised of medium-chain fatty acids, which are easier to metabolize than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fats. This makes coconut oil much healthier for you. In fact, coconut oil has a whole host of other good properties, including lauric acid which is antiviral and antibacterial, and caprylic acid which is antifungal.