Can You Eat Too Much Healthy Fat? A Registered Dietitian Explains
First, let's debunk the myth that fat is just bad for you.
We need a certain amount of fat in our diets to stay healthy. It provides energy in the form of calories, without stimulating insulin production (like sugar does) and helps the body absorb important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Fats also make food taste better and help us feel full after meals.
So, which fats are healthiest?
Foods and oils that contain medium-chain triglycerides, omega-3s, and omega-9s are considered good for you. Foods that are high in omega-6 fats and saturated fats, and, of course, trans fats, aren’t so good for you.
Here are my favorite sources of healthy fats:
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed beef
- Grass-fed butter
- Fish, particularly fatty fish
- Fish oil
- Krill oil
- Algae oil
- Flax seeds and oil
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Macadamia nuts
These days it seems like everyone is talking about how wonderful healthy fats are for you. But you might find yourself wondering, can you eat too much healthy fat?
The answer is yes! Unsaturated fat (plant sources and fish) and saturated fat (animal products, coconut, and palm oils) are both needed for good health, but in the right quantity, balance, and quality.
Eating too much of any type of food or too many calories is never a good idea.
Problems can arise if we eat too much fat — even healthy fat — since dietary fats have more than twice the calories per gram as proteins or carbohydrates. This is especially true if you couple the fat with sugars and processed carbs.
It’s not the fat itself but this combination that influences your metabolism by increasing inflammation, which could be the root of many chronic illnesses.
Although there is usually a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats in most foods, some foods contain a higher proportion of healthier fats. Polyunsaturated omega-3 fats (found in fish, walnuts, and flax) are healthy and anti-inflammatory.
Omega-6 fats, on the other hand, which are in some nuts and seeds and form the base of many vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and soybean oil, can cause inflammation if eaten in high quantities.
They can also be harmful if heated to high temperatures as they release unhealthy free radicals. Consuming a small amount of omega-6 has its health benefits, but most people eat way more than they should. The average American diet contains 15 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
This ratio should be 2 to 4 omega-6s to 1 omega-3s! Omega-9s, which are found in avocados and olive oil, are also good for you.
Coconut and olive oil are lower in omega-6, which is one of the reasons they are classified as healthy. Coconut oil is also a source of medium-chain saturated fats that are healthier for your heart and for weight loss than other sources of saturated fats. Palm oil is also a source of saturated fat but not as healthy as coconut oil.
In addition to coconut oil and palm oil, saturated fat is also found in dairy and animal products. These animal sources of saturated fat (e.g., butter, dairy, meat, chicken, eggs) have been over-demonized, but new studies indicate that they are a safe source of energy for us.
Many physicians and researchers are now blaming sugars and processed carbs for heart disease and weight gain, not saturated fats.
Many oils are processed by heating and extraction using industrial chemicals like hexane and solvents. Consuming these oils is not healthy because of the chemicals that accumulate in the body.
Look for cold-pressed oils and expeller-pressed oils (extracted without chemicals).
Because fats readily absorb pesticides, I advocate pesticide-free plants, oils, and seeds. Grass-fed meat, milk products, and butter contain a higher amount of good omega-3 fats, so are healthier than feed-lot/grain-fed animals and dairy products.
The bottom line
Good-quality fat is healthy for you in the right amounts and the right balance. Eat high-quality fats in moderate amounts as part of a balanced, whole-foods diet.
For fats, focus on plant foods, food (versus oil) sources of fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocados. Eat fish for its anti-inflammatory qualities. Include moderate amounts of animal products. Limit omega-6-laden processed foods. And don’t forget to enjoy your food and don’t overeat — no matter how healthy it is!
Lea Basch, M.S. R.D. is the Registered Dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. She has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years and was one of the founders of Longmont United Hospital’s nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. Basch received her bachelors and masters in nutrition and dietetics at Florida International University and a bachelors in education at the University of Florida. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances.