(illustrations by Katie Ebert)
Thanks to new and emerging research, we now know that eating healthy fat doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. Although fat is caloric (it contains 9 calories per gram, more than double that of proteins and carbohydrates), this macronutrient boosts your satiety—meaning you stay fuller for longer.
While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (think liquid-at-room-temperature fats, such as olive oil) are hailed as your best fat choices, the research on the health impact of saturated fats, such as butter, animal fats and tropical oils, is less clear. “We have been following guidance to reduce animal fats in the diet since the 1960s, but unfortunately, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes rates have risen steadily,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Eating in Color (Abrams, 2014), who adds that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines actually removed a limit on total fat recommendations.
[Read also: Free guide to healthy fats]
Still, because we don’t have evidence that Americans have actually been eating less fat since the 1960s, it would be incorrect to associate the rise in these chronic diseases with a decline in fat intake. “There are researchers on both sides of the fence who are passionate about fats—some think saturated fats are linked to cardiovascular disease and others think that saturated fats may even play a role in preventing heart disease,” says Largeman-Roth.
Recently, consumers’ fear of eating saturated fat has lessened. Low-carb diets including Paleo, Bulletproof and ketogenic espouse saturated fat’s nutrients (such as brain-healthy medium-chain triglycerides [MCTs])—and increasingly more brands offer products that tout fat content, rather than hide it. But the lion’s share of nutritionists and doctors still recommend limiting saturated fat.
There’s no arguing the research about the health benefits of unsaturated fats, however. And the food sources of these fats (avocado, nuts, olives and essential fatty acids such as omega-3s found in fatty fish, for example) often come with the added benefits of other nutrients, such as fiber, minerals and protein.
The general consensus: There’s no excuse to shy away from unsaturated fats; meanwhile, watch your saturated fat intake and never consume trans fats. To help navigate the "fat" world, here’s your guide to finding better-for-you fats in every section of the grocery store.
AVOCADOS: So popular is this knobby green fruit that it has arguably replaced butter as an ideal toast topper—and that’s a good thing. Although avocados are high in calories (around 250 calories per fruit), research shows they can lower LDL “bad” cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease. Avocados also contain ample fiber—about 4.6 grams per one-half fruit—and extremely low sugar levels.
NUTS: The nuts highest in monounsaturated fats—good fats linked to lower risk of heart disease—include almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. Also rich in fiber, vitamin E and calcium, nuts are caloric—one serving (an ounce, or a small handful) of almonds, for example, has 160 calories. However, studies show that regularly eating nuts (as in, every day) is associated with weight loss and reduced risk of diabetes when they replace less healthful snacks, such as salty fried chips.
CHIA AND FLAXSEEDS: Both chia seeds and flaxseeds are good-fat powerhouses. Just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contain a whopping 4,915 mg of omega-3 fatty acids, 4 grams of protein and 18 percent of your daily value of calcium; the same serving of flaxseeds contains 6,388 mg of omega-3s and abundant magnesium, a mineral vital for muscle function. Try sprinkling 1 teaspoon each of chia seeds and ground flaxseeds over oatmeal for a healthy fat-and-fiber-filled breakfast.
OLIVE OIL: More retailers are adding olive oil options to their bulk section—and you should take advantage. Olive oil is made from pressing tree-ripened olives into a flavorful, fruity and slightly spicy monounsaturated oil perfect for drizzling over salads, roasting vegetables or cooking on the stovetop. Look for the term “cold-pressed,” which means the oil is extracted using only pressure rather than chemicals. One large study found that adults ages 55 to 80 who consumed extra-virgin olive oil experienced reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
FATTY FISH: Salmon, along with other fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and herring, contains high levels of omega-3s, a group of polyunsaturated fats that may reduce chronic inflammation that can damage blood vessels. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends choosing wild-caught salmon from Alaska, where fisheries are extremely well managed. Aim to eat 8 ounces of salmon (or other types of fatty fish) per week.
MILK, YOGURT AND CHEESE: Don’t assume nonfat milk and yogurt are your best choices. Although full-fat versions contain more calories, the newest research suggests that full-fat dairy won't automatically make you gain weight. On the contrary, a 2014 study showed that people who ate the most whole-fat dairy products like yogurt, milk, kefir and cheese had significantly lower odds for being obese. If you can afford to go organic, it’s a good investment: A 2016 study found that organic milk contained higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and even higher levels of vitamin E.
EGGS: Despite being packed with important brain-optimizing vitamins such as riboflavin and choline, for decades eggs were slandered as heart-disease culprits because of their high cholesterol content. But emerging research suggests that eating cholesterol from eggs in moderation doesn’t necessarily lead to chronic high blood cholesterol. In fact, a 2015 study found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate one to two eggs per day did not have higher cholesterol than people who ate just two eggs per week. Plus, those who ate more eggs said they were less hungry throughout the day. When buying eggs, look for the term “pasture-raised” on the package, which means each hen gets at least 108 square feet to flap, peck and scratch the ground and run.
COCONUT OIL: This ultrapopular saturated fat delivers ample MCTs, which are associated with weight loss. Swap this solid-at-room-temperature fat with butter in baked goods at a 1:1 ratio for a near-identical vegan alternative, or use to sauté veggies or Asian-style noodles for distinct flavor. Also try coconut oil in your natural home beauty remedies—rub some into hands to soften them, and use to moisturize stubbornly dry areas, such as elbows, knees and heels. In 2014, Fair Trade USA started certifying coconut. Buy products with this seal to ensure you’re contributing to small-scale-farmer protection.
PALM OIL: Made from the oil extracted from the palm kernel, palm oil is in myriad products, from nut butter to lipstick to soap to cookies. Inexpensive, this stable saturated fat is a vegan alternative to butter, and now that FDA legislation bans the use of trans fat—hydrogenated oils linked to heart attack—palm oil is a natural substitute. But not all palm oil is created equal—some palm production causes deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Organizations like Palm Done Right work with companies to source palm from farms that value biodiversity, use organic practices and elevate farmers from poverty. Look for products that contain the RSPO label, which ensures palm oil producers operate sustainably.
GHEE: This staple Indian cooking oil, also called clarified butter, is beloved for its low levels of lactose. Because the milk solids, which cause butter to burn, are removed, ghee has a high smoke point, making it an ideal oil for high-heat cooking, whereas lower-smoke-point oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil, would burn. Ghee also contains MCTs—good fats important for brain health.