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.
Unfortunately, buying this healthy fat isn’t as easy as just grabbing the first bottle you see. Make sure to pick only extra virgin varieties of the oil, which means no chemicals are involved when the oil is refined. Unfortunately, many common brands have been shown to fail the standards for extra virgin olive oils, meaning it’s important to choose wisely.
Most people have been trained to choose low-fat foods over high-fat foods. Fat has always been positioned as a dietary enemy, so it’s no wonder it can get totally confusing when doctors and dietitians sing the praises of what they call healthy fats. You probably know that avocado is one of them, and that this nutrition revelation is responsible for their rise from guac staple to Instagram stardom in recent years. And of course there’s olive oil, the lynchpin of the Mediterranean Diet. But there are plenty more healthy, high-fat foods you should definitely be working into your meals and snacks on a regular basis. Here’s what you ought to know.
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source because they are easier and quicker for our bodies to digest and use for energy. On the other hand, fat takes a different route before we can use it as energy because it is insoluble in our blood. Think of fat as being a reserve or our long-term source of energy that sticks around the longest. On the technical side, which we’re about to get very technical: fat is three fatty acids + a glycerol molecule, or a triglyceride (tri- as in three and glyceride).
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!
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.
Eggs are an inexpensive and easy source of protein. People often think egg whites are a healthier option than whole eggs because they contain less fat, but while it's true that the egg yolk contains some fat, it's also packed with important nutrients. One whole egg contains 5 grams of fat, but only 1.5 grams are saturated. Whole eggs are also a good source of choline (one egg yolk has about 300 micrograms), an important B vitamin that helps regulate the brain, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. As for the cholesterol? The latest nutrition research has found that eating cholesterol doesn't raise our blood cholesterol. In fact, research has linked moderate egg consumption to improved heart health.
The healthy fats I want in your diet are the monounsaturated, found in olive oil, avocado, flaxseed oil, and nuts, and the polyunsaturated in the form of omega-3s, like fatty fish (tuna and salmon), walnuts, eggs, and chia seeds. (Skip polyunsaturated in the form of processed vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and safflower, which are made up of mostly omega-6 fatty acids.) These healthy fats are linked to strong immunity, improved cardiovascular functioning, reduced inflammation, and improved brain functioning.
You'll primarily find saturated fat in animal-derived foods, particularly fatty red meat and processed meat. And while recent research has called into question exactly how big of a negative impact saturated fat has on your health, Harvard recommends replacing sources of saturated fat with unsaturated fat. Grilling up salmon instead of a burger, for example, fits the bill.
SOURCES: WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Expert Column:"The Skinny on Fats." WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Feature: "Trans Fat Free Food: What's the Truth?" Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University. Robert Eckel, MD, past president, American Heart Association. Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, nutrition and physical activity director, American Cancer Society.
Healthy fats can reduce the risk factors for heart disease, especially if you are trying to replace ‘bad’ saturated fat. Many studies have found that a high intake of monounsaturated fats can reduce levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides (11, 12). Other smaller studies have found that monounsaturated fats can reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and increase the amounts of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol (13).
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.
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 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)
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)
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.
Polyunsaturated fats are required for some of the normal body functions listed above, but the body can’t produce them so they must be obtained from foods. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and can be found in cold-water high-fat fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil (again look for non-GMO or organic), and unhydrogenated soybean oil (also look for non-GMO or organic as most soy products in the US are GMO unless they specifically state non-GMO or organic.) Omega 3’s are also found in some greens, including romaine, spinach, and arugula. Note that the body only partially converts plant-based omega 3’s to DHA and EPA, which are found in cold-water fish
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.
Some tips for recognizing real EVOO are to beware of any brand that costs less than $10 a liter, look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council and check the harvesting date on the label. Additionally, if it’s labeled as “light,” “pure” or a “blend,” it isn’t virgin-quality. And finally, opt for dark bottles, as they protect the oil from oxidation.
Fat gives your food texture, makes it more filling and – oh yeah – it makes food delicious, too. And while the low-fat diet crazes of the 90s might have steered you away from fatty foods, the truth is that healthy fat is a crucial part of your diet. However, it's important to choose the right types of fat. Some of them offer some serious health benefits, while others offer no nutritional value and pose a serious threat to your health.
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)
Cutting back on saturated fat will likely have no benefit, however, if people replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates. Eating refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fat does lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it also lowers the “good” HDL cholesterol and increases triglycerides. The net effect is as bad for the heart as eating too much saturated fat.
Trans fats are processed to prevent rancidity by combining liquid oil with hydrogen to make a solid fat. Trans fats are commonly found in margarines and vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and fast-food French fries. Look for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats or oils when you read labels, and avoid eating these foods if possible.