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Medically reviewed by Suzanne Fisher, MS, RD, LDN
The type and amount of dietary fat you consume matters when it comes to your overall health. Healthy, high-fat foods, such as those with unsaturated fats, are important in a balanced diet.
Fat is an essential part of human diets, providing the body with energy, supporting cell function, helping to absorb some nutrients, and creating hormones. Fats also help keep your body warm and protect your organs.
This article discusses what healthy fats are, the top healthy fat foods to include in your diet, and unhealthy fats to avoid.
What Are Healthy Fats?
Unsaturated fats are generally referred to as the “good” or “healthy” fats. These types of fats are mainly found in plant foods, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. When consumed as oils, they are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are also found in oily fish.
Unsaturated fats have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and are beneficial for heart health and overall health. This is especially helpful when they replace saturated “unhealthy” fats in the diet.
Top 8 Healthy Fats
Adding healthy high-fat foods to your diet in moderation is one way to help decrease your risk of heart disease. Below are the best high-fat, healthy foods to eat.
Unlike most other fruits, avocados are not composed of mostly carbohydrates. Instead, they are loaded with healthy fats. Over 80% of the calories in avocados come from fat, the majority of which is monounsaturated fats.
In addition to healthy fats, avocados are packed with nutrients such as dietary fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C, E, and K.
Avocados have been studied for their effects on health and have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease and metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that, when occurring together, increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes).
Enjoy avocado on toast, sandwiches, or salads, as guacamole, or as a fat substitute in baked goods. You can also purchase avocado oil for use in cooking and baking.
Thanks to their stellar nutrition profiles, nuts are one of the original superfoods. Nuts are high in healthy fats, dietary fiber, and plant-based protein. Additionally, they contain plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, helping to protect against cell damage.
Walnuts, in particular, are a good source of plant-based heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which may help decrease the risk of heart disease.
Other healthy nut choices include almonds, pistachios, pecans, peanuts, and hazelnuts. When snacking on nuts, keep portion sizes in mind, as it can be easy to overeat. One serving of nuts is just 1 ounce or a small handful.
Seeds such as flaxseed, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds are full of good-for-you nutrients, including healthy unsaturated and omega-3 fats. Additional nutrients found in seeds include dietary fiber, plant-based protein, magnesium, potassium, thiamine (vitamin B1), vitamin E, and zinc.
Eating seeds may help lower your cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels, and reduce the risk of some cancers.
Seeds are great additions to salads, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, pancake and muffin batter, breads, and more.
Olives and Olive Oil
Olive oil might be the original healthy cooking oil. Used for thousands of years in the Mediterranean region, olives and olive oil have proven to provide many health benefits. Studies suggest that olive oil intake may lower the risk of developing heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Olive oil has the highest percentage of monounsaturated fats of all plant oils, which helps lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (considered “bad” cholesterol), increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), and lower blood pressure.
In recipes, olive oil can be substituted for other fats, such as butter and margarine. Olive oil tends to have a stronger taste and aroma than other plant oils. It works well in dressings, on vegetables, and as a dip for crusty bread.
Fish are a good source of protein, and some are also excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy for your heart. Fatty fish may also improve cognitive function (thinking, learning, and memory) and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Salmon, tuna, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and black cod are among the fish species high in healthy fats. The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3-ounce servings of fish per week.
Avoid eating deep-fried fish and instead choose healthier cooking methods such as grilling, baking, or poaching. If you can’t or don’t eat fish, a fish oil supplement or vegan omega-3 supplement (if you are allergic to fish) might be a good option.
Olive oil isn’t the only plant oil known to offer health benefits. Other beneficial plant oils include canola, corn, peanut, sunflower, and soybean oils. When combinations of some of these oils are made, it is often sold as “vegetable oil.”
Most plant oils are low in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fats, including both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This is beneficial for heart health, helping to improve cholesterol levels and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
Each plant oil will bring a slightly different flavor profile, which may pair better with certain cuisines and recipes. Keep a few different types of plant oils on hand to provide variety in cooking and slightly different nutrition profiles.
Though it is a delicious treat, dark chocolate is a high-fat food that can be beneficial to your health when consumed in moderation. Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) is around 64% fat. The rest is mostly carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein.
Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants, which help to reduce the amount of free radicals (reactive and unstable molecules) causing cell damage throughout the body. Dark chocolate may have a positive effect on blood pressure levels. It may also improve cholesterol levels and reduce the overall risk of heart disease.
When combined with other heart-healthy foods, such as almonds, dark chocolate may improve cardiovascular (heart) health and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Choose dark chocolate that is 70% cocoa or more to reap the benefits of this sweet treat. Also, choose a product that does not contain high amounts of added sugar.
In the past, eggs often received a not so great reputation when it comes to fats and cholesterol. However, research has contradicted the old adage that eggs (and in particular, the egg yolk) are not good for you.
Eggs contain both saturated and unsaturated fats, all of which are found in the egg yolk, but about only one-third of the fats in an egg are saturated. The remaining two-thirds are unsaturated fats. Eggs also provide a variety of nutrients, such as antioxidants, choline, vitamins D, A, E, and B12, iron, lutein, folate, and riboflavin.
In addition to the fat content, eggs are also a great source of protein, with 6 grams of protein in one egg. Both fat and protein can help you to stay full longer.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats
Because different fats act differently in the body, it’s important to know which types support the body in a healthy way and which can contribute to inflammation and high cholesterol levels.
Chemically speaking, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are fat molecules that have one unsaturated, or double, carbon bond. Oils that contain MUFAs tend to be liquid at room temperature but begin to turn solid when cold.
MUFAs can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet.
When consumed in moderation, high-fat foods with monounsaturated fats can be good for your health.
Chemically speaking, polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated, or double, carbon bond. Oils that contain PUFAs tend to be liquid at room temperature but begin to turn solid when cold.
PUFAs can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels in your blood, which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in polyunsaturated fats are also a source of vitamin E.
Oils rich in PUFAs also contribute essential fats (fats the body can’t make but needs, so they must be obtained through diet) such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids contribute to many important processes throughout the body. Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower your triglyceride levels, as well.
Saturated fats are found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. They are also found in tropical oils such as palm and coconut oils. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature.
Saturated fats have been shown to cause plaque buildup in the arteries, promote inflammation, and increase cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming no more than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fat. However, the American Heart Association takes a stricter recommendation of aiming for no more than 5% to 6% of your daily calories from saturated fat.
Mixed Evidence With Dairy
Research published in the 2010s and later contradicts the thought that all saturated fats are bad. Some studies have suggested that, despite containing saturated fat, whole-fat dairy foods, including milk, cheese, and yogurt, may have a neutral or even positive effect on heart health.
Other studies have shown dairy—regardless of fat content—may decrease the risk of metabolic syndrome. A theory is this is due to the specific type of saturated fats found in dairy foods and the other beneficial nutrients found in many dairy products, such as protein, calcium, potassium, and phosphates.
It’s important to note that some of this research has been observational, meaning it cannot show cause and effect. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association still recommend choosing low-fat dairy over whole-fat versions.
More research must be done to learn how full-fat dairy products may contribute to a balanced diet.
There are two main types of trans fats in foods: naturally occurring and artificial. Naturally occurring trans fats are found in small amounts in some animal foods. Artificial trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils, creating partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). This is often done to make the fats more stable and increase shelf life.
Trans fats have been shown to be the worst type of fat for health, increasing your LDL cholesterol and also decreasing your HDL cholesterol. Consuming trans fats can raise the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed trans fat from the “generally recognized as safe,” (GRAS) list. As of January 2020, the FDA has banned the addition of PHOs to foods manufactured in the United States.
Unsaturated fats are generally referred to as healthy fats. Many high fat foods, such as avocado, olives and olive oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, dark chocolate, whole eggs, and plant oils can be a great addition to the diet, when consumed in moderation.
Healthy unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats can improve heart-related markers in the body, such as cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Saturated fats are generally referred to as the “bad” fats, as they have been shown to increase cholesterol levels. However, the saturated fats found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt may behave differently than other saturated fats, showing a neutral or even positive effect on heart health. More research is needed.
Trans fats are the worst type of fat, as they can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while also lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.
Your overall eating pattern is what matters when it comes to eating for health. Fats are just one piece of the puzzle. Choose a variety of healthy high-fat foods within a diverse diet to get all the nutrients your body needs to thrive.