What is Healthy Fat and What Are the Best Sources?

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Dieting may make you afraid of the word "fat." But eating fat doesn't make you fat - only too many calories can do that. However, not all sources of fat are created equal. Some types of fat can provide health benefits and support your fitness goals, while other types of fat may be holding you back. Here's your complete breakdown on what makes a fat healthy and the best high-fat foods you should be including in your diet. 

Good Fats vs Bad Fats 

Science suggests that consuming fat in general is essential to health. Dietary fats provide long-lasting energy to fuel your body, they help increase the abortion of fat-soluble nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, and K), and support the production of certain hormones (1,2,3,4).

In reality, no single food or type of fat can make or break your health, your overall diet and lifestyle have a much larger impact. So there really isn't any such thing as a "bad" food or fat. Nonetheless, including more "good" fats may help reduce your risk of chronic disease and too much of other fats could increase your risk (5). 

There are three main types of dietary fat:

  • Saturated Fat
  • Unsaturated Fat
  • Trans Fat

Difference Between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

The main distinction between saturated and unsaturated fat is their chemical structure - saturated fats contain no double bonds whereas unsaturated fats contain one or more double bonds in their structure. This distinction allows for differences in physical and chemical properties between the two - it is why unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and saturated fats are more solid, and also influences how they are absorbed and utilized by the body. 

saturated-vs-unsaturated-fat-chemical-structure-double-bond-2-1

Saturated fats come primarily from animal based proteins and dairy, but can also be pound in tropical plant sources like palm oil and coconut. Unsaturated fats come primarily from plant-based foods but can also be found in meat, seafood, and dairy options. 

Based on the science, we know that unsaturated fats are associated with numerous potential health benefits, like supporting brain health and heart health (6). On the other hand, saturated fat is more controversial. Some studies suggest that high intakes of saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels, while other studies imply saturated fat is neither bad or good (7,8,9,10,11). 

Is Coconut Oil Good For You?

To make things even more complicated, plant-based saturated fat like coconut may act differently than animal based sources. Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), a unique type of saturated fat that has been tied to numerous health claims.

Currently there’s no evidence that consuming coconut oil can lower the risk of heart disease. And while there is some research suggesting MCTs are more satiating and may promote more fat loss compared to long chain fatty acids, more research is needed to provide any conclusive evidence that coconut oil is beneficial to weight loss (12,13,14).

What are Trans Fats?

Trans fats can occur naturally in foods (produced in the gut of some animals and found in foods made from these animals), but a majority of the ones we get in our diet are man-made through food processing techniques - specifically through a process called hydrogenation that involves adding an additional hydrogen to unsaturated fats to make them solid and more shelf-stable at room temperature. You can identify trans fats in food by looking for partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredients label. 

Trans fats have a unique chemical structure that is thought to help increase blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduce levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease (15,16). In fact, the research on trans fat and health risks is so strong, that the FDA has called for a ban on artificial trans fat ingredients used in the U.S. Because of this, artificial trans fats have decreased in the food supply - although they can still be found in small amounts in some processed foods.

Monounsaturated vs Polyunsaturated Fats

There is more than one type of unsaturated fat as well: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

“Mono” means one, and “poly” means many, thus monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) have one double bond and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) have multiple. Many high fat foods foods (particularly plant-based options) contain both types of unsaturated fats in varying amounts. 

Diets high in monounsaturated fats, like the popular Mediterranean diet, are associated with a wide range of health benefits including weight management, improved cholesterol, and lowered blood pressure (17,18,19,20). MUFAs are also thought to act as an important anti-inflammatory (22,23).

Polyunsaturated fats are also beneficial and there are three main types in your diet - omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fats, each of which act slightly different. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential fats and cannot be produced by your body, meaning you can only get them from food. Omega-9 is the most common form of unsaturated fat in food, followed by omega-6 - and while both offer potential health benefits, most people have little trouble getting enough of these two types of PUFAs. 

On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids are a little harder to come by - they are naturally occurring in fish oils and many plants and there are three types: 

  1. Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
  2. Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
  3. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

ALA is found in some high fat vegetable oils and nuts, whereas EPA and DHA are found primarily in fatty fish and seafood. EPA and DHA are considered some of the best types of fats you can get in your diet, due to their positive association with improved mood, weight management, and overall health (24). DHA is also the main type of fat found in your brain, making it essential to brain health and numerous bodily functions. 

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. If you are unable to eat seafood or consume foods high in EPA and DHA fats, it is often recommended that you opt for a supplement to boost your intake. 

List of Healthy Fats

The best types of fat to look for in your diet are omega-3s, specifically DHA and EPA omegas, followed by monounsaturated fats and other unsaturated fats that come from plant-based sources. 

Here are some of the most nutrient dense sources of each type:

DHA and EPA Omega-3 Foods

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Cod liver oil
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Oysters
  • Shrimp
  • Trout
  • Seaweed
  • Algae

ALA Omega-3 Foods

  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia Seeds
  • Hemp Seeds
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Edamame and Soy
  • Walnuts
  • Grass-Fed Beef and Dairy
  • Egg yolks 

Foods High in Monounsaturated Fats

  • Olives
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Canola Oil

Foods High in Polyunsaturated Fats

  • Soybean Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Sunflower Oil

Want to make sure you’re getting right balance of unsaturated and saturated fat? Stay on top of your healthy fat intake by tracking your daily food intake in the Trifecta app. By using your daily and weekly nutrient analytics you can see exactly how much of each type of fat you’re getting.

TRACK MY INTAKE

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