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.
What’s that, you say? But people who eat fat are fat. Well, no, not necessarily. Let us explain: Our bodies need dietary fat (which is why many fats are called “essential”) in order to lose weight and function properly. The right kinds of fats help increase satiety, maximize your metabolism, protect against heart disease, speed nutrients through your body, and improve your fat-soluble vitamin uptake. Not to mention, most unprocessed, high-fat foods also come packaged with many of those important nutrients, from vitamins and minerals to free-radical fighting antioxidants.
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.
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).
This blue-green alga, available in powders and supplements, is full of healthy omega-3s like EPA and DHA. Research shows that these forms of omega-3s are more active in the body than ALA at controlling inflammation and belly fat. Not only is spirulina a great source of heart-healthy fats, but it’s also super-rich in protein, a great source of probiotics, and may even be able to help flatten your belly during exercise.
Of course, these healthy fats are still fats — according to government guidelines, they should make up no more than 20 to 35 percent of your overall calorie intake. But a good rule of thumb is to choose monounsaturated fats in place of unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats whenever possible. The American Heart Association says saturated fats should make up no more than 7 percent of your total intake. To get more healthy fats, here are the foods you should focus on.
The majority of your fat intake should be from unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. So how much saturated fat per day should you aim for? Both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and World Health Organization currently recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. (42, 43) Stick to healthy sources of saturated fat such as grass-fed beef, coconut oil and MCT oil rather than fried foods or processed meats that are laden with additives and harmful ingredients.
For years, only true diet detectives knew whether a particular food contained trans fat. This phantom fat was found in thousands of foods, but only those familiar with the “code words” partially hydrogenated oil and vegetable shortening knew when it was present. Fortunately, after a large body of research in the 1990s sounded the alarm on its deleterious health effects, a series of policy initiatives led to the near elimination of artificial trans fat in the U.S. food supply by 2018. However, the road to eliminating trans fat was not so straightforward, and outside the U.S. there’s still more work to be done. In many developing nations, trans fat intake remains high.Read more about the key research and policy initiatives shining the spotlight on harmful trans fats.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
First, focus on reducing foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Then emphasize food choices that include plenty of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). But a word of caution — don't go overboard even on healthy fats. All fats, including the healthy ones, are high in calories. So consume MUFA-rich and PUFA-rich foods instead of other fatty foods, not in addition to them.
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.
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.
Several studies explore and show the this type of saturated fat in coconut does not negatively affect cholesterol levels nor overall heart health like we were once told. Some studies have shown coconut oil moderately increases metabolic rate, which is often a “selling” point that it helps boost your metabolism and contribute to fat loss or weight control. I’ll let these studies here, here, and here tell you what we do know.
One cup of ground flaxseed has a whopping 48 grams of fat, but it's all healthy, unsaturated fat. And here's the thing, you only need 1-2 tablespoons to reap the benefits. Flaxseed is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, too, so ground flaxseed is a great way for vegetarians (or those who don't eat fish) to meet their need. Also, flaxseed contains up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods. These plant nutrients contain both plant estrogen and antioxidant properties, and research suggests that they may help prevent certain types of cancer. Last, but not least, flaxseed contains both insoluble and soluble fiber, so it can help you feel fuller longer as well as reduce cholesterol and promote heart health. Sprinkle a little bit on yogurt or oatmeal, or scoop a spoonful into a smoothie. Or try baking it into this delicious, nutty pie crust.
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.
Dietary fat has been in the limelight since the 1950s, when researcher Ancel Keys conducted a study analyzing the diet patterns of seven different countries as well as their respective rates of heart disease. At the conclusion of the study, he found that higher levels of serum cholesterol were associated with a higher risk of heart disease and believed that a higher intake of foods high in saturated fat was to blame. (44)
Consuming monounsaturated fatty acids may protect you from heart disease by lowering LDL and total cholesterol, improve the function of blood vessels, help prevent depression, improve body composition, and improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control (10,11). Monounsaturated fats have even been shown to reduce cancer risk (12). Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contain the antioxidant vitamin E which has many health benefits.
This little wonder food checks all the boxes. It’s an inexpensive food that’s packed with protein and a full amino acid profile. And contrary to decades of popular belief, eggs also don’t raise bad cholesterol levels. In fact, consuming eggs can actually lower cholesterol while improving heart health. (22) The choline found in eggs is also helpful at keeping our brains in tip-top shape. (23)
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.
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.
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.
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.