For decades, dietary fat was considered the enemy of health and wellness and a major contributor to cardiovascular disease.
In recent times, however, the narrative on fat has changed as research now shows that fat isn’t necessarily as bad as it was originally believed to be. In fact, not only may certain fats provide health benefits but some others are also essential, meaning we have to get them from the diet as our bodies cannot create them.
Today, we take a look at which fats are healthy and which foods/fats should you include in your diet.
What Are Healthy Fats?
Somewhere during the past couple of years (concomitant with the rise of keto diets), the story on fat has evolved from it being necessary for survival to being something that should be consumed in masse. At the same time, carbohydrates have also been demonized as the macronutrient at fault for the world’s chronic disease and obesity epidemic.
In reality, things aren’t so simple.
You do need a certain amount of fat to function at a basic level each day. Evidence-based recommendations for athletes currently list minimum fat intake at ~0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Now, this amount of fat might be too low for some individuals, and they may feel greater satiety, higher energy, and increased libido when consuming 0.4-0.5 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
From a weight loss perspective, research shows that once minimum intakes of fat and protein are satisfied, the composition of the remainder of your calories (carbs, fat, or protein) is largely irrelevant (meaning you can lose weight eating high-carb or high fat).
What this means is that for weight loss, calories are king (as we’ve said many times before).
You need to figure out how many calories you should eat each day to lose weight, then set your protein intake (0.8-1 gram per pound, and the rest of your calories can more or less be divided how you please.
The only way to know how much fat is enough for you to function optimally on a daily basis is to experiment with your nutrition plan.
Now, back to the topic at hand -- what constitutes one fat as “healthy” and another one as not healthy.
Well, “healthy” fats are typically those viewed by the nutrition community as being good for your heart, cholesterol, and overall health.
Far and away, the type of fat that has the greatest body of evidence demonstrating its “healthy” factor is monounsaturated fat.
This is the type of fat primarily found in olive oil and nuts.
In fact, a rather large study observed that “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.”
By definition, this would qualify monounsaturated fats as “healthy fats” since they improved cardiovascular health markers and lowered the risk of major cardiovascular events.
Part of the reason these foods are found to support cardiometabolic health may be due to the presence of antioxidants and other polyphenols which themselves confer beneficial effects.
Along these lines, this is why other foods that are high in fat (fish, nut butters, avocados) are also classified as “healthy” fats.
Where things get a bit murkier are when you start to look at saturated fats, namely coconut oil.
Is Coconut Oil a Healthy Fat?
Depending on which study or blogger you read, you’ll get varying answers about the “healthfulness” of coconut oil.
An early study touted by the pro-coconut oil crowd is one in which coconut oil was shown to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria.
Another study found that men who consumed more medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) in their diet, they lost more weight (one pound) compared to those who ate a diet with a lower proportion of MCTs.
High-fat proponents took these two studies to boast about the superiority of high fat diets, specifically those entailing lots of coconut oil.
However, a 2017 report from the American Heart Association advised against the consumption of coconut oil in copious amounts.
As you might expect, this left many in the health and fitness community in a state of confusion -- is coconut oil healthy or not?
The correct answer is neither. Like virtually all foods (save trans fats), coconut oil is neither good or bad. It doesn’t possess any mystical fat burning or muscle building properties, and it isn’t going to kill you. It’s a neutral food.
Yes, coconut oil does contain some amount of medium chain triglycerides, but as we mentioned above, consuming a diet higher in MCTs led to a difference of one pound of weight loss.
This same line of thought also applies to other foods high in saturated fat, including butter.
Feel free to eat them in moderation and without any feelings of guilt.
Healthy Fat Cheat Sheet
To wrap things up, here’s some important takeaway points to consider when deciding which fatty foods to eat.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have demonstrated health benefits that are supported by research.
Saturated fat isn’t as bad for our health as it was once believed to be. As such, you can include some saturated fat and not feel guilty.
- Avocado Oil
- Olive Oil
- Nuts and nut butters (almonds macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, etc.)
- Peanuts and peanut butter
Fats to Eat in Moderation
- Coconut oil
- Vegetable Oil
- Corn Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
Fats to Avoid
- Trans Fat
- Howell, S., & Kones, R. (2017). “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 313(5), E608–E612. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00156.2017
- 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
- Shilling M, Matt L, Rubin E, et al. Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile. J Med Food. 2013;16(12):1079‐1085. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.0303
- St‐Onge, M.‐P., Ross, R., Parsons, W.D. and Jones, P.J. (2003), Medium‐Chain Triglycerides Increase Energy Expenditure and Decrease Adiposity in Overweight Men. Obesity Research, 11: 395-402. doi:10.1038/oby.2003.53
- M., S. F., H., L. A., H.Y., W. J., J., A. L., A., C. M., M., K.-E. P., … V., V. H. L. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 136(3), e1–e23. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510