There are many reasons to consume more fat through your diet. While often vilified, the right types of fat can support overall health and improve the function of your heart, brain, skin, and more. (18)(27) Continue reading to learn about which healthy fats to include in your diet and the different ways in which fat can benefit your health.
Types of fat
Dietary fat is a macronutrient required by the body for essential functions, including nutrient absorption, cell growth, and hormone production. (1)(28) Fat is the most energy-dense of the three macronutrients (namely, carbohydrates, fat, and protein), containing approximately nine calories per gram. (28) Fats can generally be categorized into two groups: saturated and unsaturated. These terms refer to the chemical structure of the fatty acid, which dictates how they will act in the body and whether they will have health-promoting or detrimental effects.
The chemical structure of saturated fat features carbon chains that are entirely saturated by hydrogens and contain no double bonds between their carbons. As a result of their single bonds, molecules are packed tightly together and are more likely to be solid at room temperature.
Saturated fat is primarily found in animal products and some plant-based foods, including:
- Coconut oil
- Meat and poultry (e.g., beef, pork, chicken)
- Palm oil (26)
Despite popular belief that saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease risk, emerging research suggests that this may not be the case. 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. (23) Still, the American Heart Association suggests limiting saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6% of daily calories. For an individual consuming 2,000 calories per day, that equates to approximately 13 g (or just under one tablespoon) of saturated fat per day. (2) Similarly, the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day. (25)
The chemical structure of unsaturated fat includes a fatty acid chain with one or more double bonds, creating a kink in the chain. Unsaturated fats are more likely to be liquid at room temperature because the kink in the fatty acid chain prevents fat molecules from packing tightly together. Unsaturated fats are broken down into two categories, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. (26)
Monounsaturated fats have only one double bond in their carbon structure. Research has indicated that consuming monounsaturated fats may reduce cardiovascular risk factors by lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL), sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol. (18) Top sources of monounsaturated fats include avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. (29)
Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds, or kinks, in the carbon chain. Similarly to monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated are known for their heart health benefits and have been shown to reduce LDL. (30) Top sources of polyunsaturated fats include flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and fish such as albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, salmon, and trout. (30)
Two common types of polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids contain multiple double bonds, with the first double-bond located on the third carbon. These fats are found in both animal and plant-based foods, such as fatty fish and walnuts. Omega-6 fatty acids also contain multiple double bonds, with the first double-bond found on the sixth carbon. These can be found in food (in the form of linoleic acid) or made in your body (arachidonic acid). (22)
Health benefits of fat
Dietary fat is necessary for numerous bodily functions. Described below are some of the most noteworthy functions and health benefits of fats.
During digestion, you need fat to absorb the four fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. These micronutrients play many roles in your body, such as vision and immune support (vitamin A), bone health and development (vitamin D), cell damage protection and blood thinning (vitamin E), and blood clotting (vitamin K). (17)
Next time you make a salad, make sure to include some healthy fats, such as an oil-based dressing, avocado, or nuts. One study investigated the effects of three salad dressings on the intestinal absorption of beta-carotene, a carotenoid and precursor to vitamin A. The greatest carotenoid absorption was observed after participants consumed a vegetable salad with full-fat salad dressing versus a reduced-fat dressing. Virtually zero absorption of carotenoids was observed when participants ate their salad with a fat-free dressing. (5)
Brain and mental health
Consuming certain sources of fat can help prevent chronic mental health issues and disease. A double-blind, randomized study found that omega-3 fatty acids help improve executive function and structural neuroimaging of the brain in older adults. (32) This indicates that consuming healthy fat can help keep your mind stay sharp during aging. Additionally, people who regularly consume fish or omega-3s have a 20% lower risk of depression than individuals who do not regularly consume fish. (3) Many complicated factors contribute to depression, however, proper nutrition may help prevent or address depressive symptoms.
Did you know? Approximately 60% of your brain is fat. (7)
Dietary fat plays an essential role in skin health by assisting in damage repair and maintaining epidermal barrier function and membrane structure. (6) As you age, you begin to lose fat beneath the skin on your face which contributes to visible signs of aging such as wrinkles and skin sagging. (6) Some research suggests that consuming monounsaturated fats may help reduce the risk of developing severe facial skin photoaging from oxidative stress and ultraviolet radiation exposure. These results are believed to be due in part to the anti-inflammatory effects of monounsaturated fats. (14)
Furthermore, linoleic acid (LA), a type of omega-6 fatty acid found primarily in plant-based foods, 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. (12) LA can be found in sunflower seeds, pecans, pine nuts, and some cheeses.
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 and inhibits gastric emptying, thus improving postprandial (post-meal) glycemic control and increasing satiety. A trial study in diabetic patients found that gastric emptying was delayed and the rise of blood glucose and insulin was reduced when consuming olive oil before a carbohydrate-containing meal. (10) These effects suggest that fat may be beneficial for weight management and, potentially, metabolic disorders.
Healthy high-fat foods
Choose from the following foods when adding more fat to your diet.
Extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is produced without chemical processes and is mostly composed of monounsaturated fat. EVOO is a source of antioxidant-rich plant compounds known as polyphenols. This antioxidant capacity has been linked to protection against coronary artery disease and cancer. (11)
This creamy, high-fat fruit is an excellent source of monounsaturated fat and vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant. Avocado oil is a suitable oil for cooking at high temperatures because it has a higher smoke point. (8)
Coconut and MCT oils
The fat in coconut contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a form of fat that is easily digested due to its shorter fatty acid chain. MCT oil, an excellent source of energy extracted from coconut or palm fruit, is also available as a dietary supplement. One study compared the metabolic effects of supplementing with MCT oil versus olive oil as part of a 16-week weight loss program. Following the intervention, subjects lost more weight while supplementing with MCT oil than with olive oil, without increasing triglyceride levels and other metabolic markers. (24)
Fatty fish, such as trout, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, high in EPA and DHA. (16) Consuming fatty fish may improve cardiovascular health and reduce cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (9)
Eggs are rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and provide protein with a full spectrum of amino acids. (13) Don’t throw away the yolk – that’s where the healthy fat is stored. In one study comparing the benefits of consuming whole eggs versus a yolk-free egg substitute, whole eggs were more effective in raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, commonly referred to as “healthy” cholesterol. (4)
Nuts and seeds
Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, and seeds, including flax and chia seeds, are great sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Many nuts and seeds also provide essential alpha-linolenic acid, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients. (16)
According to multiple meta-analyses, regularly consuming nuts and seeds may improve health outcomes by lowering blood pressure, (15) reducing LDL cholesterol levels, (19) and improving glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes. (31)
The bottom line
Dietary fat benefits your overall health in numerous ways, including optimizing nutrient absorption and supporting brain and skin health. Take advantage of these health benefits by eating a variety of healthy high-fat foods, such as nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, and healthy oils daily.
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