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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coconut is high in saturated fat, but more than half of that comes from lauric acid, a unique medium-chain triglyceride that battles bacteria, improves cholesterol scores, and, as a Journal of Nutrition study found, increases the 24-hour energy expenditure in humans by as much as 5 percent. And get this: A study published in Lipids found that dietary supplementation of coconut oil actually reduced abdominal fat. Sprinkle unsweetened flakes over yogurt or use coconut oil in a stir-fry to start whittling your waist. Need more reasons to get coconut in your diet? Check out these benefits of coconut oil.
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.
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.
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)
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.
In fact, while carbohydrates from whole grain, fiber-rich sources can be beneficial, refined carbohydrates found in foods like candies, white bread, baked goods and sweets provide little in terms of nutrition apart from extra calories and sugar. According to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, refined carb intake was associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease while consumption of whole grains and polyunsaturated fats was linked to a lower risk. (6)
And it’s not just walnuts, a study from the International Journal Of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders found that even when two groups of participants consumed the same amount of calories, the group which had more calories from fatty almonds lost the most weight. When it comes down to it, all nuts will be great sources of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fats, just in varying amounts. If you’re looking to slim down, read our essential guide to the best nuts for weight loss.
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.
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Fat is a type of nutrient, and just like protein and carbohydrates, your body needs some fat for energy, to absorb vitamins, and to protect your heart and brain health. And despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the health and waistline wars. “Bad” fats, such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But “good” fats such as unsaturated fats and omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
The overarching message is that cutting back on saturated fat can be good for health if people replace saturated fat with good fats, especially, polyunsaturated fats. (1, 15, 22) Eating good fats in place of saturated fat lowers the “bad” LDL cholesterol, and it improves the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.
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.
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).
Trans fats are typically found in highly-processed fatty foods such as crackers, cakes, donuts and pastries. Studies show that eating this unhealthy type of fat can have detrimental effects on health; one study in the New England Journal of Medicine even reported that each 2 percent increase in calories consumed from trans fats nearly doubled the risk of coronary heart disease. (39)
Two recent studies completely debunked the arguments for a low-fat, high-carb diet. In an August 2017 study published in the Lancet, scientists concluded “a high carbohydrate intake was associated with an adverse impact on total mortality, whereas fats including saturated and unsaturated fatty acids were associated with lower risk of total mortality and stroke. We did not observe any detrimental effect of fat intakes on cardiovascular disease events” (3).
That being said, not all dark chocolate is stellar for your health. I recommend choosing a chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cacao or higher. This minimizes the amount of sugar and means you’ll be getting a solid antioxidant boost. And wherever possible, look for brands that do fair trade and use organic cacao beans to get the most bang for your buck.
Consuming high levels of calories – regardless of the source – can lead to weight gain or being overweight. Consuming high levels of saturated or trans fats can also lead to heart disease and stroke. Health experts generally recommend replacing saturated fats and trans fats with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – while still maintaining a nutritionally-adequate diet.
Additionally, coconut and the different varieties of coconut may have antimicrobial properties, provide benefits to gut and digestive health (here and here), as well as help increase skin moisture and integrity (here, here, and here). For even more studies to read the science behind coconut oil/medium chain triglycerides, feel free to check out one of my favorite resources here.
Fat came under scrutiny in the 1960s when the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to publish a review on sugar, fat, and heart disease. The sugar industry funded the research to cover up warning signs, which emerged in the 1950s, that sugar caused heart disease (1). Shifting the blame away from sugar, the researchers singled out saturated fat as the cause of heart disease.
And if you're thinking fish-oil capsules will help you avoid the contamination risks of fresh fish, think again. Because supplements are not regulated in the U.S., Sandon says, some may contain concentrated amounts of the same toxins found in fresh fish. And because the oil is so concentrated, the supplements can also produce an unpleasant body odor.
Along with nuts, seeds get high marks as healthy fats to improve good cholesterol. And flaxseeds are especially popular among nutritionists because of their versatility in a heart-healthy diet. “Sprinkle flaxseeds onto whatever you like,” says Haisley. “My favorite is with Greek yogurt or on my oatmeal. It is a great addition to salads or whisked into your favorite homemade salad dressing. You can even bake with it, too; try using 3 tablespoons of flaxseed in place of 1 tablespoon of oil or margarine in your muffins.” Try these cranberry-nut mini loaves with flaxseeds.