The science is in: sugar is out, and fat is back! Fat has seen a resurgence in the health and wellness world recently. Previously (incorrectly) demonized for years as causing weight gain and being harmful to heart health, healthy fats are now being celebrated. Read on so you’re fully informed about healthy fats and nutrition.

There are many science-backed reasons to get more fat in your diet. Including high-fat foods can be beneficial to your mental health, skin, hormones, and more. The right types of fat can even improve your heart health.

Did you know?
Fat can help with weight loss as it’s known to stabilize blood sugar and keep you satiated.

It’s important to choose the right, good-quality fats to consume. Let’s learn about which healthy fats to include in your diet, the foods you can find them in, and the different ways these benefit your health.

What is fat?

Fat is one of the three macronutrients that are found in your food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. You use all three throughout your body for essential functions.

Types of fat

Fats can generally be broken down into two groups: saturated and unsaturated. These terms refer to the chemical structure of the fatty acid. With saturated fat, the carbon chains are entirely saturated by hydrogens and contain no double bonds between their carbons. This is what causes these fats to be solid at room temperature. Examples of such fat are lard and coconut oil.

With unsaturated fat, the fatty acid chain will have one or more double bonds. This gives them at least one kink in their chain, and therefore they’re more fluid. Unsaturated fats will be found as liquids at room temperature, like olive or avocado oils. Unsaturated fats are broken down into some further categories.

Monounsaturated fat

Monounsaturated fats have only one double bond in their carbon structure. They are more delicate when cooking, and should not be used with high heat. These fats have been researched for their heart-healthy benefits.

Polyunsaturated fat

Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds, or kinks, in the carbon chain. The most common ones that you’ll find are omega-3s and omega-6s.

  • Omega-3 – the first double-bond is found on the third carbon. Omega-3s are found in both animal and plant-based foods, such as oily fish and walnuts.
  • Omega-6 – the first double-bond is on the sixth carbon. These can be found in food (in the form of linoleic acid) or made in your body (arachidonic acid). Arachidonic acid is also made by animals and is present in animal products you eat.

The balance you get between these two fats is important to your health. The standard American diet contains about a 15:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Consuming high omega-6 is linked to chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory disorders. When the ratio is lowered, it results in less mortality due to heart disease, lowers risk of certain cancers, and reduces inflammation. It depends on the specific condition studied, but the benefits were seen with a ratio of 4:1 or as low as 2:1 omega-6 to -3. (1)

How can you get that ratio down? Try to lower the processed foods in your diet, which will have industrial oils like canola, safflower, and soybean oils. You can see these oils in foods from baked goods to sauces and bottled dressing. The fat in these foods is high in omega-6s.

On the flip side, you can increase omega-3s by consuming oily fish and shellfish (including trout, salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and mussels). Plant foods, such as walnuts, flax, and chia seeds will have an omega-3 called alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) that your body will convert to EPA and DHA. These two fatty acids are the omega-3s linked to suppressing inflammation. (2) Keep in mind that only a small amount of plant-based ALA gets converted. So, if you’re on a vegetarian diet, it may be important for you to supplement with omega-3 that contains EPA and DHA.

Saturated fat

The saturated fat we mentioned before is used in your body in cell membranes. This type of fat is found in meat, dairy, coconut, and cocoa butter. It gets a bad rap for increasing cholesterol, but the truth is that the evidence is mixed. A meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that there was no significant evidence linking saturated fat in the diet to coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. (3) Still, the American Heart Association suggests limiting saturated fat. Their recommendation is 5-6% of daily calories, which works out to 13g on a 2000 calorie diet (or just under one tbsp.) (4) It’s important to consider the context of your entire diet, and where saturated fat can be included to maintain balance.

variety of nuts, avocados, olive oil with olives in a white jar and fish oil supplements in a white dish on a wooden table

Dietary fat helps you to absorb nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins from your food.

High-fat foods to include in your diet

  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) – Virgin olive oil is pressed from the fruit, without being heated or processed. It’s made up of mostly monounsaturated oleic oil. EVOO is a source of polyphenols, plant compounds rich in antioxidants. This antioxidant capacity has been linked to protecting against coronary artery disease and cancer. (5)
  • Avocados – They’re full of monounsaturated fat, vitamin E, and are high in fiber, making them a great choice for your digestion. Avocado oil can also be used for cooking since it has a higher smoke point.
  • Coconut and MCT oils – The fat in coconut has medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs). This form of fat is easy to digest because of its shorter fatty acid chain and provides a great source of energy. MCT oil is also found as a dietary supplement, where it’s extracted from coconut or palm. One study looked at a weight loss intervention with MCT oil. It found that subjects lost more weight with the MCT treatment than with olive oil, without adverse effects to metabolic markers like triglyceride levels. (6).
  • Oily fish – These are your preferred source of omega-3 fat, as they’re high in EPA and DHA that your body won’t need to convert. They include trout, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies.
  • Eggs – Eggs are truly a nutrient powerhouse. They provide protein with a full spectrum of amino acids. They’re a good source of choline, a vitamin-like nutrient that plays a role in brain health and development. (7) Don’t throw away the yolk – that’s where the healthy fat is stored!
  • Nuts and seeds – Nuts like walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, and seeds including flax and chia are a great bet. In general, nuts and seeds provide essential alpha-linolenic-acid, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients.

Did you know?
In a double-blind human study, walnuts were found to improve mood in healthy males. (8)

man holding a pan and wooden spoon, cooking in kitchen

Foods high in omega-3s help to reduce inflammation in your body.

Healthy benefits of fat

Nutrient absorption

You need fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. These micronutrients play many roles in your body, such as vision and immune support (A), bone health and development (D), act as an antioxidant and blood thinner (E), as well as being needed in the essential function of blood clotting (K). (9)

Autoimmune disease

The omega-3 fatty acids are known for their ability to help reduce inflammation. This shows promise in treating autoimmune disorders, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Pro-inflammatory immune cells that are produced when consuming omega-6 have been linked to these conditions. (10) This is just one example where a low ratio of omega-6 to -3 is important to your wellbeing.

Skin health

Linoleic acid (LA) is an important component of your skin. It helps form the epidermal barrier, which protects from environmental factors and prevents water loss through the skin. (11) You can find LA in sunflower seeds, pecans, pine nuts, and some cheeses.

Brain and mental health

You’ve heard it before — your brain is mostly fat! Consuming the right fat can help prevent chronic mental health issues and disease. A double-blind randomized study found that omega-3 treatment resulted in improved executive function and structural neuroimaging of the brain in older adults. (12) This indicates that consuming healthy fat can help keep your brain sharp during aging. What’s more is that people with the highest consumption of fish or omega-3 have a 20% lower risk of depression. (13) Of course, there are many complicated factors that contribute to depression, but proper nutrition can help with prevention and be used as an adjunct to treatment.

Appetite and blood sugar management

Dietary fat has been found to regulate appetite through several mechanisms. It impacts the release of hormones that affect appetite, as well as inhibiting gastric emptying. A trial study in diabetic patients found that gastric emptying was delayed when consuming oil with the meal, and the rise of blood glucose and insulin was reduced with oil. (14) These effects point to fat being used to help with weight management and potentially metabolic disorders.

There’s such a myriad of benefits when you include healthy fat sources in your diet. Strive to eat a variety of healthy high-fat foods, and your body will thank you! We recommend you ask your health practitioner about any dietary questions.

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