These Are 10 Of The Best Healthy Fats & High-Fat Foods You Can Eat
Fats have gotten a bad rap over the years—but now, it seems we're finally mending our relationship with this long misunderstood macronutrient and realizing just how necessary it is for brain health, heart health, hormonal health, and even weight loss. Of course, not all fats are created equal (bad fats can increase your risk for weight gain and chronic disease), and with high-fat diets like keto gaining popularity, it's more important than ever to know which fats are healthy and which aren't.
Here, learn everything you need to know about why we need fat to thrive, the best and worst types of fat for your health, and some of the best high-fat foods you can add to your diet.
Why your body absolutely needs fat.
We've come a long way from our fat-free SnackWell's days—and thank goodness for that, as fats play multiple crucial roles in the body. Here, functional medicine nutritionist Megan Fahey, R.D., shares some key reasons to embrace fat:
- Fat is necessary for satiety. Ask anyone who's switched from a fat-free salad dressing to one made with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar—you will feel way more full after eating the latter. "Fat is the macronutrient that triggers the brain to recognize fullness when eating," says Fahey, "which helps regulate internal fullness cues to prevent overeating."
- Fat is necessary for vitamin and mineral absorption. Fat can instantly up the health cred of nearly any meal. "Four vitamins necessary for bodily functions can only be absorbed in the presence of fat: vitamins A, D, E, and K," says Fahey. Plus, numerous antioxidants, like lycopene, are better absorbed in the presence of fat, and research has linked saturated fat to improved calcium absorption and bone health.
- Fat keeps your brain functioning and nerves firing. "The brain is essentially a blob of fat and cholesterol, so dietary fat is important to provide your brain the building blocks it needs to function," says Fahey, adding that fat also coats, protects, and insulates nerves, enabling them to send signals between brain and body.
- Fat and cholesterol fuel your sex drive. Bet you didn't know this one! Saturated fat and cholesterol are necessary to synthesize sex hormones—estrogen, progesterone, testosterone—and help maintain overall hormonal balance, Fahey says.
What makes something a "healthy fat" anyway?
There's a lot of debate in this area, but emerging research is helping us come to a more scientifically sound conclusion, and one that's far more nuanced than simply saying "saturated fats are bad and unsaturated fats are good." While many benefits of unsaturated fats (which include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) have long been established, the truth is, research is now starting to vindicate saturated fat and support its consumption from quality sources—in moderation. Current dietary recommendations haven't necessarily caught up to this research, however.
"Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat, and if we followed the recommendations, you would avoid it at all costs," says registered dietitian Maya Feller, R.D., who works with patients to manage their weight- and diet-related chronic illnesses. "However, consuming moderate amounts of coconut oil gives your HDL (good cholesterol) a boost. So that information now allows us to move coconut oil out of the 'never' category."
More important than whether a fat is saturated or unsaturated: the source of that fat. Experts seem to agree that the majority of your daily fat intake should come from minimally processed, high-quality plant sources while leaving room for high-quality animal sources as well. "Organic, plant-based fats provide a favorable profile of phytochemicals and nutrients, which are strongly linked with enhancing brain and heart health," says Fahey, adding that some of her favorite high-fat foods include avocados, nuts, seeds, and olives. On the other hand, many experts believe that highly processed plant fats, such as those from low-quality vegetable, seed, and bean oils (think: soybean, corn, safflower, and canola), have a pro-inflammatory effect and are best avoided.
When it comes to high-fat animal foods, the way an animal was raised and what they were fed can drastically affect the fat profile of their meat, eggs, or milk, which you should take into consideration. "Grass-fed beef and grass-fed butter actually contain a more favorable profile of fatty acids and are appropriate to incorporate in moderation," says Fahey.
Also, it's generally widely accepted that you should stay far away from lab-made trans fats, which are found in a number of highly processed foods. "They increase systemic inflammation and exacerbate cardiovascular disease while increasing variability in blood glucose and the risk of poor health outcomes overall," says Feller.
10 of the healthiest high-fat foods.
The above information is a good guide for helping you choose the right fats. But still, there are some standout high-fat foods that deserve their own shoutout. Here, some of the most nutritious fatty foods out there:
Nutritionists, doctors, and medical associations1 agree: We should be eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week to reap the head-to-toe benefits of their polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. These fatty acids are crucial for proper development, cardiovascular protection, and brain health. Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids have even been associated with increased depression and anxiety. DHA, in particular, is powerfully anti-inflammatory and has been associated not only with reduced Alzheimer's risk but improvement of depression as well, neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., recently told mbg.
Once considered unhealthy due to their cholesterol content (which we've learned probably isn't a big deal), eggs are back on the menu. Not only are they packed with protein, which can keep blood sugar levels stable, but they contain many of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need for good health. A few standouts: choline, which is critical for cognitive function and liver health; vitamin K2, which is protective against heart disease by preventing arterial calcification; and biotin, a nutrient well known for supporting hair, nail, and skin health. All that said, the types of eggs you choose are also very important, so consider opting for pasture-raised varieties, which tend to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins K2, E, and A.
Avocados are loaded with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)—a type of unsaturated fat associated with improved heart (they've been shown to help lower2 LDL cholesterol) and brain health. But they're so much more than that. They also contain over 14 minerals; loads of soluble fiber, which helps trap excess cholesterol and send it out of the system; a variety of antioxidants; plant-based omega 3s; and vitamins C, E, and K to name a few. Bonus: Studies indicate that meals that include avocado increase feelings of satiety longer than those without.
Swap out processed, pro-inflammatory vegetable oil for extra-virgin olive oil, and you'll immediately boost your health. Like avocados, EVOO is a potent source of heart- and brain-healthy MUFAs, specifically a MUFA called oleic acid. It's also jam-packed with health-promoting polyphenols, including oleocanthal (the compound that gives good olive oil its peppery bit), which exhibits strong anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to slow cancer cell growth in lab studies3. In fact, one large research review4 found that women who consumed the most olive oil in their diets had a lower risk of breast cancer as well as cancers of the digestive system. It also helps hydrate and smooth skin from the inside out.
We can't mention olive oil without mentioning olives, one of Fahey's favorite high-fat foods. Like olive oil, they contain the MUFA oleic acid along with a variety of polyphenols, which, together, reduce inflammation and promote heart and brain health. They're also an awesome source of gut-friendly fiber, with 3.5 ounces containing about 13 percent5 of your recommended daily intake. Research6 has also shown that eating olives results in higher blood levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that's essential to energy production.
Nuts (especially walnuts)
All nuts are pretty darn healthy, given their great composition of fiber, protein, and fats (mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, but it varies a bit by the type of nut), and research suggests they can be a key tool in helping you lose weight. In fact, one large study7 looking into the effects of the Mediterranean diet found that people who were asked to add nuts to their diet lost an average of 2 inches from their waist over the course of a year. Walnuts, in particular, are often ranked the top nut for having both more healthful antioxidants, called polyphenols, and a higher antioxidant potency than other nuts. They're also the only nut that contains a significant source of the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Flax, chia, and hemp seeds
Flax, chia, and hemp seeds are also great sources of the plant-based omega-3 ALA, which helps reduce inflammation throughout the body. They also contain heart-healthy, gut-friendly fiber and a fair amount of protein and magnesium, making them worthy additions to your morning smoothie or oatmeal. Flax is a particularly great source of a type of phytochemical called lignans, which may help lower cholesterol8. Pro tip: Opt for ground flaxseeds, which may be easier to digest, and consider soaking your chia seeds (try this chia pudding) to boost your absorption of these beneficial nutrients.
Looking for a nutrient-packed sweet fix that's not fruit? Nothing really tops dark chocolate, which contains mostly monounsaturated and saturated fats, and is brimming with flavanol antioxidants that may help lower blood pressure9 and improve brain function—provided you opt for the right kind. Dark chocolate that's at least 70 to 80% cacao is your best bet (several of these healthy chocolate bars make the cut). Dark chocolate is also a surprising source of stress-busting, sleep-enhancing magnesium, with an ounce containing about 16 percent of your recommended daily intake.
Coconut and MCT oil
Coconut oil is largely composed of saturated fat, but, as mentioned above, it's actually been shown to have a somewhat positive effect on cholesterol10. And many experts suspect that consuming coconut oil in the context of a healthy diet is key to this benefit. According to Robin Berzin, M.D., high saturated-fat consumption in a diet that is otherwise void of adequate fiber and leafy greens, and too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates increases bad cholesterol, while high fat consumption from clean sources of unsaturated fats (like olive oil) and saturated fat (organic coconut oil) in a diet high in veggies and fiber, and mainly free of refined carbs, can actually improve cholesterol composition.
Now that we have that out of the way, what's so great about coconut oil? Coconut oil is composed largely of medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs)—the fats that are often credited for many of coconut oil's health benefits. Coconut oil is used to make MCT oil, which, you guessed it, contains an even higher concentration of MCTs.
MCTs may be a useful tool if you're on the ketogenic diet, as they go straight to the liver, where they may be turned into ketones11 (the fuel your body runs on while in ketosis), and they've even been associated with improved memory12 in at least one pilot study.
Sure, you may not think of cheese as a health food, but real Parmesan (think the kind you find in a block, not a shaker) packs a special punch, containing mostly saturated and monounsaturated fats. Parmesan is high in calcium, containing about 31%13 of your recommended daily intake in 1 ounce, along with a decent amount of vitamin B12. But, unlike many other forms of dairy, it's very low in lactose and can often be tolerated by people with lactose intolerance. It also packs a big protein punch, with 11 grams per ounce. Fun fact: Those crunchy crystals you bite through in quality Parmesan are actually tiny bits of an amino acid called tyrosine, which plays a role in the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline)—and thus helps regulate mood and emotional response.
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).