Fats are an essential, yet frequently misunderstood, component of maintaining a healthy diet.
For decades it was taught that dietary fat made individuals fat and was the root cause behind clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease.
Fast forward to the modern-day, and the narrative has changed -- not only are fats, not the demonic macronutrients they were touted to be but depending on what websites/blogs/social media posts you encounter, you'll be led to believe they are the key to unlocking a disease-free state and increased longevity.
As with most things, the truth and reality lie somewhere in the middle. Fats are not inherently bad, nor are they a hidden "secret" to superior health and wellness.
Today, learn what healthy fats to eat vs. bad fats to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
What Are Healthy Fats To Eat?
"healthy" fat is typically those considered by the research community as being beneficial for cardiovascular health.
The type of fat with the greatest body of evidence demonstrating its "healthy" factor is monounsaturated fat.
This is the type of fat found primarily in nuts and olive oil.
As evidence monounsaturated fats are healthy fats, consider a rather large study from 2013, which found that individuals following "an energy-unrestricted Mediterranean diet, supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts, resulted in a substantial reduction in the risk of major cardiovascular events among high-risk persons." <1>
By definition, this would qualify monounsaturated fats as “healthy fats” since their consumption led to improvements in cardiovascular health markers and lowered the risk of major cardiovascular events.
Researchers postulate that at least part of the reason these "fatty" foods may support cardio-metabolic health might be the presence of antioxidants and other phenolic compounds that could confer beneficial effects.
This may explain why other foods that are high in fat (fish, nut butter, avocados) are considered "healthy" fats.
Another dietary fat generally considered healthy are polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can be found in plant and animal foods, including salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Research suggests that the polyunsaturated fat oleic acid may act as an anti-inflammatory. <2>
Animal studies also indicate that avocado oil may offer protection against cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. <3>
At this point, you may be asking what’s the difference between monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
As the name indicates, monounsaturated fats have only one double bond in their molecular structure, whereas polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond.
Both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. <4,5>
As mentioned above, polyunsaturated fats include the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are needed for brain function and cell growth. <6>
Medium Chain Triglycerides
Medium Chain triglycerides (MCTs) have gained enormous popularity in recent years.
As evidenced by their name, medium-chain triglycerides contain medium-length chains of fats, unlike polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which contain long-chain fatty acids.
Due to their shorter length, MCTs are metabolized differently than long-chain triglycerides and directed straight to the liver where they can provide an immediate source of energy for cells, similar to glucose or be converted into ketones.
Ketones can serve as an energy source for cells, including those of the brain. <7>
As a bonus, consumption of MCT oil has been shown to increase the release of two hormones that increase the body's feelings of fullness: leptin and peptide YY. <8>
MCTs can be found in several foods common to the diet, including coconut oil, whole milk, and butter.
Given the numerous benefits attributed to MCT oil consumption, it’s also readily available in supplement form, including SteelFit® goMCT.
SteelFit® goMCT a robust 9 grams of MCT powder per serving along with 4 grams of natural acacia fiber to acacia fiber to support gut health and optimize the gut-brain axis.
What About Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat continues to be a polarizing topic, and overconsumption of saturated fat has been associated with several adverse health outcomes.
The truth is that you do need some saturated fat in the diet, as they are required for optimal hormone production.
Saturated fats are called because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules and contain only single bonds between carbon molecules. Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between carbon molecules (monounsaturated fats).
This saturated molecular structure leads to saturated fats being solid at room temperature -- examples include coconut oil and butter.
While there is evidence that overconsumption of saturated fat may increase heart disease risk factors, the evidence on saturated fat's impact on actual heart disease itself is far from conclusive.
Additionally, the current body of evidence on saturated fat intake doesn’t show a significant association between its intake and all-cause mortality or stroke. <9,10>
It's also important to consider the source of saturated fats.
For instance, a diet high in saturated fats in the form of fast food and fried products is more than likely to affect health differently than a diet high in saturated fats from high-quality sources like coconut oil, full-fat dairy, and grass-fed meats.
Total calorie intake and body composition play a role in this equation too.
The bottom line here is that saturated fat isn't the boogeyman it's been made out to be. The body needs some saturated fat for normal function. Just focus on getting your saturated fat intake from high-quality sources.
Bad Fats To Avoid
The worst type of dietary fat is trans-fat.
It is created using a process called hydrogenation that converts healthy oils into solids, extending their shelf life and preventing them from becoming rancid.
Trans fats have no known health benefits, and they have been officially banned in the United States.
Consuming foods high in trans fats has been known to increase LDL cholesterol and decrease "good" HDL cholesterol.
Trans fats also cause inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. To top it off, trans fats also contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Previously, trans fats could be found in all sorts of packaged and baked goods. The easiest way to avoid these types of bad fats is to limit the amount of processed food you eat.
Foods That Contain Healthy Fats
Here are some important takeaways to keep in mind when deciding which fats to include in your diet
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have demonstrated health benefits that are supported by human research.
- Saturated fat isn't as bad for our health, as you may have been told. As such, you can include some saturated fat in your diet and not feel guilty.
- Trans fats are to be avoided or severely restricted.
Foods high in monounsaturated fats:
- Olive Oil
- Canola Oil
- Nuts and Nut Butters (almonds macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, etc.)
- Peanuts and Peanut Butter
- Avocado Oil
Foods high in polyunsaturated fats:
- Seeds (sunflower, flax, pumpkin, sesame)
- Fatty Fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout)
- Fish Oil
Foods high in saturated fats:
- Red Meat
- Chicken Skin
- Full-fat Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.)
- Coconut Oil
- Palm Oil
Fats to Avoid
- Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Covas, M.-I., Corella, D., Arós, F., … Martínez-González, M. A. (2013). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 368(14), 1279–1290. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa1200303
- Carrillo C, Cavia Mdel M, Alonso-Torre S. Role of oleic acid in immune system; mechanism of action; a review. Nutr Hosp. 2012;27(4):978-990. doi:10.3305/nh.2012.27.4.5783
- Carvajal-Zarrabal O, Nolasco-Hipolito C, Aguilar-Uscanga MG, Melo-Santiesteban G, Hayward-Jones PM, Barradas-Dermitz DM. Avocado oil supplementation modifies cardiovascular risk profile markers in a rat model of sucrose-induced metabolic changes. Dis Markers. 2014;2014:386425. doi:10.1155/2014/386425
- Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2010;12(6):384-390. doi:10.1007/s11883-010-0131-6
- Jenkins DJ, Chiavaroli L, Wong JM, et al. Adding monounsaturated fatty acids to a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods in hypercholesterolemia. CMAJ. 2010;182(18):1961-1967. doi:10.1503/cmaj.092128
- Dyall SC. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Front Aging Neurosci. 2015;7:52. Published 2015 Apr 21. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2015.00052
- Augustin, K., Khabbush, A., Williams, S., Eaton, S., Orford, M., Cross, J. H., … Williams, R. S. B. (2018). Mechanisms of action for the medium-chain triglyceride ketogenic diet in neurological and metabolic disorders. The Lancet Neurology, 17(1), 84–93. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(17)30408-8
- St-Onge MP, Mayrsohn B, O'Keeffe M, Kissileff HR, Choudhury AR, Laferrère B. Impact of medium and long chain triglycerides consumption on appetite and food intake in overweight men. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014;68(10):1134-1140. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.145
- Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis
. Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(6):398-406. doi:10.7326/M13-1788
- Dehghan M, Mente A, Zhang X, et al. Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2017;390(10107):2050-2062. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32252-3