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.
Fats are commonly classified as good fats and bad fats. Good fats are all fats which are naturally found in foods; they are not heat processed, and are therefore not damaged. Especially important good fats are the essential omega-3's, but any fat that's normally found in food- like avocados, eggs, flaxseed, olives, coconut and nuts can be a good fat when consumed in a healthy diet.
Olives are rich in monounsaturated fat. Add them to salads or snacks, and cook with olive oil whenever possible as part of a heart-healthy diet. “Olive oil is made up of triglycerides that contain a very large percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids,” says Janet Bond Brill, PhD, a registered dietitian and author of Cholesterol Down: 10 Simple Steps to Lower Your Cholesterol in 4 Weeks Without Prescription Drugs and Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease. “Up to 80 percent of olive oil is monounsaturated, primarily the omega-9 fatty acid known as oleic acid. The high monounsaturated fatty acid content of olive oil is extremely cardioprotective — it cuts your ‘bad’ cholesterol level, helps prevent atherosclerosis, and can bump up your level of HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol.” Try this simple olive-based side dish of chard with green olives, currants, and goat cheese.
Red meat provides us with healthy fats, in particular, conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA—the trans fat that actually helps improve heart health and reduce belly fat—and stearic acid, a saturated fat that actually reduces LDL cholesterol. But grass-fed beef is even better than what you’ve traditionally been grabbing. In fact, a study in Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed beef is higher in CLA, stearic acid, and omega-3 fatty acid (because grass contains ALA and corn does not), and lower in unhealthy palmitic acid, than conventionally raised beef. And when it comes to your waistline, grass-fed beef is naturally leaner and has fewer calories than conventional meat.
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.
When comparing saturated vs. unsaturated fat, it’s generally recommended that unsaturated fatty acids should make up the majority of your fat intake. One study in 2015 showed that replacing just 5 percent of calories from saturated fats with an equal amount from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids resulted in a 25 percent and 15 percent reduced risk of heart disease, respectively. (6) However, both offer a unique set of benefits and can be included in moderation as part of a well-balanced and healthy diet.
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One easy rule: You should always avoid trans fats—they’re listed on the nutrition label as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Most are artificial and raise your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol (the good kind that helps keep blood vessels clear). According to the American Heart Association, trans fats increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and are associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
All digestion first takes place in the mouth from chewing and saliva beginning to break down food. After you eat a fat-containing food, such as almonds, you first break down the food in your mouth. Next, it goes to your stomach where those solid pieces of almond are further broken down via stomach acid (2). Fats actually hang out in the stomach for quite a bit which is one reason for why fat keeps you feeling fuller longer. Depending on the volume of food and components of food, healthy fats may keep you feeling full for hours.
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)
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.
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.
Plus, eating a good variety of foods high in fat can also boost brain function. Loading up on the healthy fat foods can soothe inflammation and promote blood flow to the brain to enhance cognitive function. In particular, medium-chain fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids and unsaturated fats play a critical role in brain function and development. (11, 37, 38)
You may wonder isn't fat bad for you, but your body needs some fat from food. It's a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. Fat is needed to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. For long-term health, some fats are better than others. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Bad ones include industrial-made trans fats. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.
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.
You read that right. Even bacon has healthy fats! We recommend going with old school, full-fat pork. While opting for turkey bacon will save you about 13 calories and a gram of fat per slice, it also adds sodium to your plate—which can lead to high blood pressure. Plus, pork offers more protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAS) than its poultry-based counterpart. Bear in mind that no matter which option you add to your breakfast plate, serving size matters, so don’t pig out. A few slices are all you need.