But as you know, not all fats are created equal. Saturated and trans fats are the worst kind, as both increase the amount of bad cholesterol that enters the blood system. Bad fats also lead to inflammation, which can cause numerous debilitating diseases. All of the burgers, French fries, pizza and other greasy junk foods are loaded with these bad fats that can harm your body.
Monounsaturated fat can be found in a variety of foods and oils. There is a consistent amount of research which suggests that monounsaturated fat foods can actually improve blood cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases (8). Foods which contain monounsaturated fats include nuts, vegetable oils, peanut butter and avocados.
Adding eggs with the yolk offers a tremendous amount of benefits. “Current research proves that eggs contribute a boatload of nutrition, including riboflavin, folate, and vitamins D and B12 that can lower the risk of heart disease,” shares Warren. Eggs get a bad rep because they contain cholesterol and saturated fat. But research shows that the cholesterol in eggs (and in the diet in general) doesn’t necessarily contribute to cholesterol in the body. Warren also points out that studies highlight the importance of being cognizant of total saturated fat in the diet, regardless of whether it is from an egg yolk or not. One large egg actually only contains 1.6 grams of saturated fat.
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.
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.
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)
If you’re wondering about fat and its place in your diet, you’re not alone. Each year the International Food Information Council Foundation conducts a nationwide survey of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. When the results were released earlier this year, fat was found to be one of the biggest topics of nutritional confusion. Research around the importance of fats in the diet continues to grow and results repeatedly underscore the importance of a healthy meal plan that focuses on moderation vs. a restrictive diet. When it comes to healthy fats, here’s what you need to know.
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.
Avocado: One of the most widely known healthy fats, avocado makes an ideal addition to any dish at breakfast, lunch or dinner. It's also perfect as a stand alone snack! This powerhouse of a superfood isn't only a monounsaturated fat – it's also loaded with folate, potassium, fiber and vitamins E, C and B6. Don't forget to cook the pulp and eat it as well- the avocado seed is loaded with essential vitamins too! Don't let it go to waste!
Healthy fats are unsaturated fats that are found in fatty fish like salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds, plant oils that are liquid at room temperature like olive oil, and coconut oil. Coconut oil is contested as a healthy fat because it is a saturated fat, but because the majority of its fat content is medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), I consider them an exception.
Fatty, oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease and high cholesterol. “Salmon, tuna, trout, and Atlantic or Pacific mackerel are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Darlene Zimmerman, RD, a dietitian at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Grilled, baked, or broiled, include fish in your heart-healthy diet at least twice a week for a total of 8 ounces, she suggests. Try this great recipe for grilled rosemary salmon.
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).
Often thought of as a high-fat food, steak is actually not as high in fat as you may think, particularly if you choose one of these lean cuts, which have 5 grams of fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving, on average. What's more, lean beef is an excellent source of protein, iron, and zinc, all important nutrients for active women. One 3-ounce portion of lean beef packs a whopping 25 grams of muscle-building protein, three times the iron (which is important for carrying the oxygen in your blood to your brain and muscles) of 1 cup of spinach, and a third of your daily zinc needs to help support your immune system. Lean cuts of pork, like pork tenderloin, can also be a good source of fat when eaten in moderation. Cured and processed pork, like bacon, often contains loads of sodium and other preservatives like nitrates (which have been linked to increased heart disease and cancer risk), so they're not the healthiest way to consume the other white meat.
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.
There are two basic kinds of fat, saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fats are considered “healthy fats” include both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats are typically found in vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature, fatty fish, (salmon, trout, catfish, mackerel), and nuts and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3’s that are the building blocks of cell membranes I mentioned earlier. Omega-3’s also give your body energy and help support your hormones and immune system (3).
If you’re able to tolerate dairy, full-fat dairy can be an excellent source of heart-healthy fats. Probiotic yogurt, in particular, is a staple on the healthy fats list as it contains beneficial bacteria that can help optimize the health of your gut microbiome to promote better overall health. Upping your intake of probiotics can also support healthy digestion, boost immunity and reduce cholesterol levels. (29)
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Most nuts and seeds are good healthy-fat choices, but almonds and walnuts are at the top of many experts’ lists as a great part of a heart-healthy diet to lower high cholesterol. “Almonds and walnuts are quick, delicious, and easy for a mid-morning or mid-day snack,” says Maria Haisley, RD, a clinical dietitian at Elkhart General Hospital in Indiana. “Make your own trail mix using your favorite ingredients or simply add to salads. Try using ground almonds as a coating on baked chicken or fish.” This chicken fingers recipe is a delicious way to do just that.
Dr. Michael and Dr. Mary Eades in their book Good Calories, Bad Calories write about the role that saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil play in immune health stating that the “loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi”.
Studies have found that avocados can lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol, boost anti-inflammatory properties, and improve vascular health. It’s very simple to add avocados to just about any salad. “Simply think portion control when integrating it into a weight-loss plan,” says Warren. If you’re concerned about how much fat you’re consuming or simply don’t prefer avocado on its own, try whipping up an avocado-based dressing. Toss an avocado, some Greek yogurt, and seasonings (we like fresh cilantro and parsley) into a blender and enjoy.
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.