What are Healthy Fats?

Kimberly Maloomian, RD, LDN

Over the years, oils and fats have gotten a bad rap. Even today, the perception that “fats make people fat” still persists.

Before we tackle this myth, we must first explain the difference between foods that are “fatty” versus “high-fat.” Fatty foods are man-made items, such as highly processed oils or packaged foods and deep-fried items. By contrast, high-fat foods are those that naturally contain large amounts of fat per serving – more than five grams of fat in a serving.

There are also two kinds of high-fat foods: those that are high in saturated fats and those with unsaturated fats. Typically, animal proteins like red meat and pork are higher in saturated fats.

But did you know that the fat profile of meat is purely a result of the animal’s diet? Imagine that you have two types of farm-raised animals: one is given fatty feeds in areas called “feed lots” while the other is “free range” and eats only grasses. The fatty feeds contain processed oils high in saturated fats, which then causes the meat to contain high amounts of saturated fats. On the other hand, grasses have an omega (unsaturated) fat profile. Animals raised in pasture who never see a feed lot will have an “omega fat profile” instead of a “saturated fat profile.”

The same is true of farm-raised versus wild-caught fish. Farm-raised fish have a higher saturated fat profile due to their fatty diet, whereas wild-caught fish have an omega fat profile from eating krill, plankton, and sea grasses. Even in the animal kingdom, the type of fat consumed matters when it comes to health!

The skinny on fat

Fat is a necessary part of our diets and is required for many functions in your body. In fact, fat is needed to absorb and store key vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K all require dietary intake of fat for proper absorption and storage.

Many who strive for a fat-free lifestyle may face issues because their bodies could not get the needed vitamins. This can result in poor eye sight, bone density issues, problems with the nervous system, poor skin health, and bleeding risks.

What is a “good fat?”

How do you know which fats are saturated or unsaturated? The easiest way to find out is to leave it out on the counter. If the item is still solid at room temperature, it is a saturated fat. Butter and coconut oil are two examples. But if the item is a liquid, it is an unsaturated fat.

Let us look at some healthy fat choices for your diet. These will help to keep your body running smoothly.

  • Olive oil: This popular oil is probably the most commonly known “good” fat source, and is readily available. There are two popular kinds of olive oil: the green one, which is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), and the yellow one, which is just olive oil. EVOO is made from the first pressing of the fruit and has the most flavor. However, this version should only be added after the food is cooked. Because EVOO burns easily, it is not recommended to heat it. That is why it is commonly used for salad dressing. Yellow olive oil is a better choice for cooking as it has a higher smoke point, which means it will not burn as fast.
  • Avocado oil: Many people eat avocados, but few are aware that you can buy avocado oil. It is another great addition to salads or can be drizzled over roasted vegetables or grilled chicken breasts. Like EVOO, you should not heat avocado oil as it can burn. If you prefer avocados themselves, they are an abundant source of healthy unsaturated fats. Add them to salads, tacos, chicken, swordfish, or steaks. Or try the new trend: avocado toast! Prepare with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt on a slice of hearty-multigrain toast.
  • Flax seed oil: Many people are less aware of this oil. Flax seeds are very common toppers for breakfast cereals or in breads, but because it has a strong flavor, their oil can be just as useful. Avoid heating flax seed oil. In fact, it should be kept in the refrigerator as it goes rancid easily with temperature fluctuations. You can add it to oatmeal, cream of wheat, or muesli in the morning or drizzle it on toast with honey and peanut butter. Men should be cautious of flax intake, though, as some studies have shown that it can be harmful for prostate health.
  • Walnut oil: This is another great oil for salads or breakfast cereals. Like some other oils, walnut oil cannot be heated, but its flavor is best when added just prior to eating. Compared to other oils such as avocado, almond or sesame, this oil tastes truest to its source -- walnuts.
  • Sesame oil: This is a reliable, healthy oil for cooking. You only need a little to get a lot of flavor and you can heat it unlike most of the other oils listed. As an added bonus, sesame seeds have the highest content of calcium per serving than any other food. Even though you can heat sesame, you should store it in the refrigerator to ensure freshness.
  • Fish oil: Most people avoid using fish oil for cooking because of the excessive flavor. But the health benefits of fish oil have long been known. Cod liver oil was the first marketed fish oil product for health and, while it might have been miserable to swallow, it did keep people quite healthy. Now, fish oil supplements are available to help maintain heart health and immune system function.
  • Nuts: Go nuts for these little powerhouses! A handful of almonds or chopped walnuts as a snack, on top of a salad, or in yogurt give you the healthy fats your body needs and extra flavor for your meal.

Go ahead, add these healthier oils to your list. For more tips on heart-healthy eating, visit our website