What is Healthy Fat and What Are the Best Sources?

Shannon Slabaugh
Shannon Slabaugh

Eating clean may make you afraid of the word "fat." Naturally, you instantly think of fatty foods such as cookies, pastries, cheeseburgers, etc. You are correct... to a certain extent. The fats in those foods are composed of saturated fat and/or trans fat. Don't be afraid of other types of fat, as they can be very beneficial to a diet and can even aid in weight loss.

Saturated vs Trans Fat

Saturated fat can be bad, if consumed in large amounts. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your saturated fat intake [3]. Studies have shown, it raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Foods that fall under this category include most things sourced from animals, such as red meat, eggs, butter and cheese. 

Studies have shown, the worst source of fat is trans fat. Some trans fat is naturally sourced in foods and another type is artificially sourced, through a process called partial hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated fat also increases the risk of high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in human food [4]. Trans fats are inexpensive and make food taste better and last longer—which is why most fast food contains high levels of trans fat. Some other foods that contain high levels of trans fat include doughnuts, biscuits, cookies, crackers, etc. 

Good Fats vs Bad Fats

High cholesterol and heart disease are common health issues in America. With 2,200 Americans dying of cardiovascular disease daily [5], it’s definitely something to pay attention to. Luckily, there are ways to avoid these prevalent conditions.

Have no fear… the good fats are here! Remember these two terms: monounsaturated & polyunsaturated. Studies have shown, those are the fats you want to be incorporating into your diet.

Monounsaturated Fat

This type of fat has one double bond in the fatty acid chain with all of the remainder carbon atoms being single-bonded [1]. You may have heard of these fats, especially with the popular “Mediterranean diet” being studied. This diet incorporates large amounts of monounsaturated fats, resulting in a high-fat diet. Examples of these fats include: olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts, safflower and sunflower oil. Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is linked to lower risk for heart disease [2].

Polyunsaturated Fat

Omega-3 Fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids naturally occurring in fish oils and many plants. The body does not make Omega-3 fatty acids so they must be obtained from foods we eat. There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: ALA is one type, found in some vegetable oils such as: soybean, canola, flaxseed, and walnuts. ALA is also found in some green vegetables such as: brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. This fat is essential for your body to function and you can only get it from the whole foods you consume. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are classified as polyunsaturated.

The other type of Omega 3s are EPA and DHA, found in fatty fish. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA but is very inefficient at doing so. Therefore obtaining EPA and DHA directly from food becomes crucial for human beings. 

Benefits include:

  • Reducing the risk of heart disease, various types of cancer, osteoporosis and bone loss
  • Lessening symptoms of diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease, anxiety, depression, etc.
  • Improving cognitive function

How Much Fat Should You Supplement For?

That actually depends on the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. Our ancestors are estimated to have consumed Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats in a ratio of about 1:1. As vegetable oil consumption and processed grain consumption have risen in modern society, so has that ratio.

Commonly used vegetable oils are very high in Omega-6 fats: Safflower oil is 75% Omega-6 and 0% Omega-3 and sunflower, corn, cottonseed and soybean oils are all more than 50% Omega-6 fats with 0% Omega-3s. High quality fish oils are 100% Omega-3 and 0% Omega-6. It is now estimated that we consume a 12:1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3. The more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 is available to the tissues to potentially cause inflammation.

Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral and does not cause inflammation (in fact it reduces it). A diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 has a higher chance of inflammation. A diet of a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 may reduce inflammation. I try to eat fatty fish at least once or twice a week and I take supplemental forms of Omega-3 from quality sources. The average person should consume a minimum of 3g (3000mg) of Omega 3 fatty acids (specifically EPA and DHA) per day. An ideal amount for those who are athletic is 5g (5000mg).

For those who are obese or have chronic inflammation or pain, 7g (7000mg) is ideal, according to studies. The average American consumes a diet very high in Omega 6: vegetable oils, soy and processed grains. Avoid vegetable oils and products containing them.

Tips to prevent inflammation

Foods high in Omega 3 Fat:

  • Flaxseed Oil/Flaxseeds
  • Chia Seeds
  • Edamame
  • Walnuts
  • Grass-Fed Beef
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Cod
  • Shrimp
  • Cod liver oil
  • Herring
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Egg yolks (especially omega 3 enriched eggs)


1. Monounsaturated fat
2. PLOS ONE: Modified Mediterranean Diet Score and Cardiovascular Risk in a North American Working Population
3. AMA: Saturated Fats
4. AMA: Trans Fats
5. Cholesterol and Heart Disease
6. Lichtenstein, A. H., Van Horn, L., & Nutrition Committee. (1998). Very low fat diets. Circulation98(9), 935-939.
7. McManus, K., Antinoro, L., & Sacks, F. (2001). A randomized controlled trial of a moderate-fat, low-energy diet compared with a low fat, low-energy diet for weight loss in overweight adults. International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders25(10).
8. Panagiotakos, D. B., Chrysohoou, C., Pitsavos, C., & Stefanadis, C. (2006). Association between the prevalence of obesity and adherence to the Mediterranean diet: the ATTICA study. Nutrition22(5), 449-456.
9. Crous-Bou, M., Fung, T. T., Prescott, J., Julin, B., Du, M., Sun, Q., ... & De Vivo, I. (2014). Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses' Health Study: population based cohort study. British Medical Journal, 349, g6674.
10. Nilsson, P. M. (2014). Mediterranean diet and telomere length. British Medical Journal, 349, g6843

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