What Are Healthy Fats?
Healthy fats are one of the macronutrients vital for human health, alongside protein and carbohydrates. However, it can be quite overwhelming when it comes to understanding which fats are truly healthy to consume. This is why we have put together this guide to help you to make the best informed choices. So, let’s answer the question, what are healthy fats?
What Are Fats?
First, we should define what regular fats are. Fats are substances made up of mostly carbon and hydrogen atoms, which is what makes them hydrophobic and insoluble in water. Outside of the literal terms, fats are a major source of energy. 60% of the brain is fat and fats are also found within every single cell in the body. Fats are needed in the diet so the body can absorb vitamins such as A, D, E and K.
Several years ago, fats were frowned upon. This debate has now been put to rest through better quality research. It is now clear that fats are in fact needed for many important roles in the body, which we explore below.
What we also now know is that when it comes to fats, what matters most is understanding that not all of them are equal. Some of fats are healthier than others. Other fats have no benefits and are even dangerous to consume.
Different Types of Fats
All fats have a similar chemical structure, regardless of whether they are healthy or not. There are some small differences in them that may include the length of the carbon chain, as well as the number of hydrogen atoms connected to the carbon chain. This is what distinguishes whether a fat type is good for us or not.
There are four main types of dietary fats which are listed below, complete with examples of foods that contain them and their role in the body.
These types of fats are important for metabolic and cardiovascular health. Saturated fats include foods such as:
- Dairy, cream, cheese, butter
- Fatty beef and pork cuts
- Poultry skin and dark cooked poultry, cuts of meat and lamb
- Organic eggs
- Coconut oil, extra virgin coconut oil, palm oil and cacao butter
These fats help with weight loss, lowers high blood pressure, lowers the risk of heart disease, reduces inflammation and strengthens nerves. This type of fat is found in these foods:
- Macadamia nuts, almonds and cashews
- Olive oil, canola oil and sesame oil
Omega 3 fatty acids are important for hormone, brain, skin and cell health. They help enable fertility and reduce inflammation. They also help blood to clot and strengthen vision.
Omega 6 helps support healthy brain and muscle function. Too much omega 6 can cause inflammation. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in these foods:
- Corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil and sunflower oil
- Flaxseed oil and flaxseeds
- Walnuts and sunflower seeds
- Meat, poultry and fish
Unsaturated Fatty Acids
There are two types of trans fats. Man-made (artificial) trans fats are chemically altered vegetable oils that stay solid at room temperature. This helps to avoid food going rancid on store shelves. Artificial trans fats are typically found in margarine, cookies, pastries and fried foods. They have no benefits for the human body.
Then, there are naturally occurring (ruminant) trans fats, otherwise known as natural, unaltered fats. Natural trans fats are typically found in meat and dairy products. Unlike artificial trans fats, this type does have some benefits, including protecting against heart disease and diabetes.
How to Choose Healthy Fats
With all of the above information, this complex topic is broken down even further below to help you put into practice choosing healthy fats with ease. Here are fats you should avoid.
Avoid Artificial Trans Fats
While restriction is not the ideal way to encourage people to choose healthy foods, it is a case and point with trans fats. According to research, eating trans fats increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, strokes and obesity. Its probability for causing cancer is inconclusive.
Choose the Least Processed Oil
No matter if it is saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat or monounsaturated fat, each is more beneficial and healthy when it is minimally processed. So, whether it is a piece of meat that contains naturally occurring saturated fats, coconut oil used for cooking, or a handful of raw cashew nuts, all are most beneficial when they are consumed as close to their natural state as possible.
Reduce Omega 6 and Consume More Omega 3
The true ratio for the intake of omega 3 to the intake of omega 6 essential fatty acids is 4:1, in favor of omega 6. However, the current average person in the western world does not eat enough omega 3 to meet this ratio. So, look at reducing your omega 6 intake and boosting your omega 3 intakes to try and bring this back into balance.
Avoid Vegetable Oils
Often, the vegetable oils have been turned into trans fats (like margarine) and have been highly processed and refined, which makes them unhealthy. The latter is also known as industrial seed oils.
This is why when choosing plant based fats, it is best to choose those that are labelled "extra virgin" and "cold-pressed", as these are the ones minimally processed, with no chemicals used to extract them and they are not created using high heat. This ensures that nutrients still remain.
Recommended Daily Intake of Healthy Fats
It is recommended that we eat saturated fats liberally, eat monounsaturated fats in moderation, avoid polyunsaturated fats from industrial seed oils and avoid trans fats altogether.
It is also suggested that we boost our omega 3 levels by eating 10 to 20 ounces of cold water, fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies or sardines, every single week.
It is also important to remember that even though your body needs healthy fats, it cannot distinguish between the healthy ones or unhealthy ones you consume, making it even more vital to become educated on choosing healthy fats that will help you to thrive.
- Harvard Health Publishing (The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between)
- Urban Remedy (What are fats? The real skinny on healthy fats and harmful fats)
- Healthline (What Are the Benefits of Monounsaturated Fats?)
- Chris Kresser (The Truth about Saturated Fat with Zoё Harcombe)
- Chris Kresser (Healthy Fats: What You Need to Know)
- Medical News Today (Dementia risk higher in those who eat more trans fats)