So you’ve jumped on the avocado toast bandwagon because the whipped, green goodness is full of healthy fat — which helps our bodies function in terms of:
- hormone production
- nutrient absorption
- cell growth
- insulation from cold
- organ protection
Except the wrong kind of fat won’t help here, and if you’re confused about what constitutes a good fat versus a bad fat and why — you’re not alone. We’ve cut through the noise so you can learn which fats can help you slay your goals and which ones need to bounce from your diet.
Good news: You don’t need to ghost all the fats, especially naturally-occurring fats in whole foods.
“Fat is an energy provider,” explains Mindy Haar, PhD, a registered dietitian and the assistant dean of undergraduate affairs at NYIT School of Health Professions. “Fats are the last to leave the digestive tract and thus provide satiety.” That means that fats can help us feel fuller longer and keep us from overeating or excessive snacking, especially on fake carbs.
Here are the types of fats to keep an eye out for:
Unsaturated fat is the golden child of dietary fats
This is the fat category that earns the A+ report card for its health benefits. It can be broken into two categories:
- polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)
- monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)
Polyunsaturated fats can decrease bad cholesterol (LDL) while also increasing good cholesterol (HDL). And PUFAs also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s a win-win-win. PUFAs contain those ticker-friendly omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids we’re always hearing about.
Hello, shiny tresses and beard and a host of health benefits!
Unsaturated fat health wins
- decreases bad LDL
- increases or maintains good HDL
- reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
- fights bad moods, inflammation, mental decline, and more
- helps you feel full
- PUFAs to eat: fatty fish, ground flax seed, liquid plant-based cooking oils (avocado, canola, olive, peanut), and nuts and seeds
- MUFAS to eat: nuts, avocados, olives, liquid plant-based cooking oils (grape seed, sesame, sunflower, vegetable), and certain seeds and animal fats
Drop the fake carbs and stick to saturated fat
You may have heard over the years that saturated fat is on the naughty list for raising LDL. But new studies show that eating more saturated fat is also associated with an increase in HDL, resulting in a decrease in total cholesterol.
The Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently recommend consuming less than 10 percent of our daily calories from saturated fat. However, researchers are calling for changes to this recommendation because it could do more harm than good if we replace our beloved fats with processed carbs to feel full.
In one large study, they showed that if we swap calories from saturated fat with calories from refined carbs — like white rice and bread — we could be putting ourselves at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. But increasing total fat intake, whether saturated or unsaturated, was associated with a lower risk. You probably shouldn’t wrap every meal in bacon, but you don’t have to shy away from that whole-milk latte — it’s about eating smart. (You also want to avoid eating too many saturated fats and refined carbs together, which does mean backing off on the staple bread and butter.)
Saturated fat health wins
- increases HDL, while decreasing total cholesterol
- lowers risk of cardiovascular diseases
- helps you feel full
- Saturated fats to eat: full-fat dairy products like butter, cheese, and cream; lard, and solid oils like palm, kernel, and coconut
PS: What makes saturated fat saturated? Check the consistency at room temperature. Saturated fats sit solid when out, while unsaturated fats rest as liquids.
11 ways to get more healthy fats
- Use mashed avocado as a condiment.
- Add nut butter to a smoothie.
- Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar on your salad.
- Use seeds or nuts as toppings on salads and yogurt.
- Add olives to your pasta, salad, tacos, or pizza.
- Order the cheese plate.
- Choose salmon or trout.
- Nibble dark chocolate for a sweet treat.
- Top Brussels sprouts or other sides with a fried egg.
- Melt butter on steamed veggies.
- Snack on nuts instead of chips.
- Cook with olive oil, or try avocado, sunflower, or grapeseed oil.
One trick to knowing which fats are healthy is by looking at the packaging and processing. Prepackaged, processed foods are more likely to have bad fats. Whereas whole, unprocessed foods are more likely to contain good fats.
Like the class clown, fat has a reputation for being a trouble-maker. When compared to the other two macronutrients of our diet — carbs and protein — fat is the one we raise our eyebrows at. But fat’s bad rap is unwarranted and comes from decades of misleading or confusing info in the diet and nutrition industry.
“Fat plays a vital role in the absorption of vitamins, A, D, E, [and] K; gives rise to components of the immune system; regulates body temperature; provides structure for cell membranes, and therefore influences multiple biological functions,” says Lori Zanini, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
Fat is indeed an essential nutrient we need to survive and thrive, but not all fats are created equal. As long as we avoid artificial trans fats, such as those found in fried foods and pastries, we can use the rest of the fine and tasty fats to power us through our days.
If you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current number on the scale, fat can be a healthy part of your strategy. But that doesn’t mean you should make fats your sole source of nutrition. Consuming too much fat could lead to weight gain because fat is calorie dense compared to other macronutrients. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories. Carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories per gram.
In the end, maintaining a healthy weight is about the basics: eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise.
Benefits of fat
- helps absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K
- helps immune system
- regulates body temperature
- helps your body function
- creates a feeling of satiety
Every person is different, so if you’ve got specific fitness or health goals in mind, Zanini recommends consulting with a registered dietitian who can help you figure out a nutrition plan that’s right for you.
What this information all comes down to is: Fat is your friend. “Having balance and quality fats in the diet is key to properly nourishing the body,” Zanini says.
Now that you know the good fats, here’s what might be masquerading in your food as healthy: artificial trans fats, aka manufactured fats. They’re created when hydrogen molecules are pumped into vegetable oils.
“This hydrogenation process creates a more solid fat that is less likely to become rancid and thus prolongs the shelf life of processed foods,” says Haar, PhD.
Research shows that eating artificial trans fats:
- significantly increases our risk for heart disease
- causes inflammation
- can damage the inner lining of the blood vessels
- could drive insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
Trans fats can be found in everything from frozen pizzas to donuts, cookies, crackers, and cakes. Food manufacturers are required to list trans fats in grams (g) on labels. However, keep in mind that the FDA currently allows foods with 0.5 g of trans fats to be listed as 0 or trans-fat free.
Instead of looking at grams, check ingredient lists and avoid foods with the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.”
What about natural trans fats? Yes, naturally-occurring trans fats are a thing! These fats are found in some meat and dairy foods and are considered safe and even beneficial. Unlike artificial trans fats, humans have been eating natural trans fats for centuries.
By June 2018, the FDA’s ban on artificial trans fats in our foods will take effect. This doesn’t take the responsibility of reading labels off us, however. Some manufacturers will have a period of up to three years to comply, which means artificial trans fats will still be in circulation — and we know how long those last!
When breaking up with artificial trans fats, make sure you’re reading food labels. And to incorporate all the beneficial fats, we’ve armed you with the info to supercharge your health and eat meals that make you feel full and satisfied. Please pass the Parmesan!
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.