Fats often get a bad rap. However, fat is actually an essential nutrient that plays several important roles in the body. The trick is to pack natural, nutritious sources of fat onto your plate.
To help out, we asked nutritionists what makes fats healthy or unhealthy and which healthy fats you should include in your diet.
Why fat is important
Fat is a macronutrient, along with carbs and protein, which means our bodies require it in large quantities (as compared to micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, which our bodies require in small quantities).
Fat has been vilified1 for decades, with several diets promoting fat-free or low-fat eating patterns. However, this essential nutrient plays several important roles in the body, says Crystal Scott, R.D., a nutritionist who specializes in weight management. Moreover, fat also adds great flavor to food and helps us feel full, says Jen Scheinman, M.S., RDN, a functional nutrition coach.
Fortunately, awareness of the importance of fat has been growing, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of diets such as the high-fat keto diet. Here are some of the reasons dietary fat is so important, according to Scott:
It provides energy.
It facilitates vitamin absorption.
It maintains cell structure.
It enables hormone production.
Some hormones, including certain adrenal hormones as well as some sex hormones, are synthesized from cholesterol, which is a type of fat.
Body fat offers insulation and protection.
How much fat to eat
However, it's important to understand that all fats are not created equal. There are, in fact, hundreds of different kinds of fatty acids, each with their unique properties. They have been grouped into a few main buckets (monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, etc.) for the sake of our convenience and understanding.
What makes a fat healthy?
So, what makes a fat healthy, and how you can distinguish between healthy fats and unhealthy fats?
On the other hand, Naidoo explains that an unhealthy fat is one that is the result of food processing. Processing alters the structures of natural fats in ways that make them harder for the body to use.
Omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids
If you've heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, you may wonder what the difference between them is and which kind is healthy.
"Prior to the industrial revolution, humans consumed a diet with an approximately 4:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats; however, in today's food climate the average person consumes roughly a 16:1 ratio19 of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, which is one of the drivers of chronic inflammation and many metabolic diseases," Naidoo explains.
Healthy fats list
Now that you understand the importance of fat, here are some natural, nutritious sources of healthy fats (plant and animal) that you can add to your diet.
|Food||Fat per serving|
|Olive oil||13 grams|
|Full-fat yogurt||8 grams|
|Dark chocolate||12 grams|
You can munch on a handful of nuts when you get peckish or add them to your yogurt, cereal, or smoothies to make them more filling and nutritious. If you like nut butter, you can pair it with slices of celery or apple as a healthy dip.
Like nuts, seeds also pack a powerful punch when it comes to protein and healthy fats. Seeds contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats25 that can help reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
There are many different types of seeds, and they can be used in several different ways. For instance, you can add ground flaxseeds or chia seeds to your smoothies. Or, you can sprinkle a mix of pumpkin and sunflower seeds over your soups and salads. Chia seed pudding also makes for a great breakfast option.
Eggs, and egg yolks in particular, once had a bad rap28 for their cholesterol content. However, more recent research has shown that dietary cholesterol isn't a significant factor for heart disease risk29. Furthermore, eggs are a nutrient-dense food30 that offer several vitamins and minerals, in addition to protein and healthy fats.
You can eat yogurt as is or add it to smoothies. Top it with berries and nuts for an extra boost of flavor and nutrition. When you shop for yogurt at the grocery store, be sure to opt for full-fat yogurt and avoid fat-free or low-fat varieties.
There are many types of beans, and you can cook them in several ways. For example, you can add chickpeas or kidney beans to salads and use cannellini beans in soups. Black beans make for a healthy taco filling, and roasted lima beans make a nice snack.
Ghee is a form of clarified butter that has been used in Ayurvedic recipes and remedies for centuries. It is made by heating butter and getting rid of any excess water, in order to create a more concentrated fat that contains fat-soluble vitamins33 A, E, and K, Ginger Hultin, M.S., RDN, previously told mindbodygreen.
Ghee has a high smoke point of 485 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it a good cooking medium. When you buy ghee, try to opt for organic, grass-fed varieties as far as possible.
Unhealthy fats to avoid
Trans fats and hydrogenated oils are unhealthy fats you should avoid.
Trans fats are formed via a manufacturing process that involves adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, in order to transform it from a liquid to a solid at room temperature.
Margarine and shortening are examples of trans fats. They are known as partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). Trans fats used to be found in many fried foods, baked goods, packaged snacks, and store-bought salad dressings, says Naidoo. These fats have been shown to pose a serious risk to heart health36.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans food manufacturers from adding trans fats to foods37 in the United States, although some products still contain traces of them. The FDA estimates that removing PHOs from processed foods can potentially prevent thousands of deaths and heart attacks per year.
In addition to trans fats, other highly processed fats such as vegetable and seed oils are also unhealthy, especially in high amounts, says Scheinman. "There's concern that the highly processed fats found in soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil can increase inflammation, especially in the typical American diet where we eat a lot of these fats and very little of the healthy anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids," she explains.
Naidoo recommends avoiding deep-fried foods such as French fries since fast food restaurants usually use these cheaper oils that are inflammation-producing.
What about saturated fats?
Saturated fats often get grouped in with trans fats, but they're not the same thing. Saturated fats are found in animal products like meats and dairy, as well as some tropical plant foods like coconut, says Naidoo.
"The current dietary guidelines recommend that you keep saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories. If you have heart disease, high cholesterol, or are at high risk of developing heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fats to 5% to 6% of your daily calories39," says Scheinman.
When it comes to evaluating how healthy a food is, it's also important to consider the quality of nutrition the food offers rather than just the leanness, Abby K. Cannon, J.D., R.D., CDN, previously pointed out to mindbodygreen. If a food is rich in vitamins and minerals and also contains some saturated fat (such as eggs, for example), it may be a better option than a food that has no fat but doesn't provide much nutritional value either.
As with all foods, Naidoo recommends eating saturated fat in moderation and as part of a healthy balanced diet that is also rich in fruits and vegetables.
What are the healthiest fats to eat?
The healthiest sources of fat offer omega-3 acids, preferably accompanied by other nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Avocados, nuts, seeds, eggs, and fatty fish are some of the healthiest sources of fat you can add to your diet.
What are good fats for weight loss?
Foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, avocados, eggs, fatty fish, olive oil, and yogurt offer healthy fats and can be part of a balanced diet that helps you lose weight. Since fats are calorie-dense foods, it's important to be mindful of your portion sizes.
What are examples of bad fats?
Hydrogenated seed and vegetable oils, margarine, shortening, and foods containing trans fats are some examples of unhealthy fats you should avoid.
If you're trying to eat better, it's worthwhile to add healthy fats to your diet and eliminate unhealthy fats as much as possible. Nuts, seeds, beans, avocados, eggs, fatty fish, olive oil, and yogurt are all great sources of healthy fats that will leave you feeling satisfied.
Sanjana Gupta has been a health writer and editor since 2014. She has written extensively for platforms like Insider, Livestrong.com, and Verywell Mind. Her work spans various health-related topics, including nutrition, fitness, mental health, medical conditions, and wellness.
Sanjana has a master's degree in digital journalism from New York University. She also holds a master's degree in management from the University of Mumbai.
She balances her love for chocolate with a penchant for fun workouts like aerial yoga and kickboxing.