When you aim to eat a healthy diet every day, one of the first things you might consider is how much fat you’re eating. And you have probably heard people say you should focus on good fats instead of ‘bad’ fats. But what does it really mean, and why does it matter? What are healthy fats?
Many people just try to cut out saturated fats and keep unsaturated fats in their diets, but it isn’t quite that simple. There are benefits of eating some saturated fats, too, depending on the source. The most common healthy fats to eat, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids, are found mainly in plants and fish. In this article, we’ll explore the types of fats and what you should know about them, as well as provide a list of the best fatty foods for your diet.
What's the Difference Between Saturated & Unsaturated Fats?
The biggest visible difference is that saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. From a science perspective, the difference is that unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms bonded to each carbon chain.1 Saturated fats have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms each carbon chain can hold, thus the name saturated fats. That level of hydrogen saturation plays a role in how the fat is processed by your body.
What are the Types of 'Good' Unsaturated Fats?
There are two categories of unsaturated fats – monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Both are healthy unsaturated fats.
These fats are a staple of the Mediterranean diet and have been studied thoroughly for their potential health benefits for the heart. Monounsaturated fats come from foods like olive oil, avocados, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, canola oil, and most nuts.
Have you heard about the health benefits of essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids? Those are two of the most well-known polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids support total body health, from heart health to brain health.
Foods that contain polyunsaturated fats include fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Are Saturated Fats 'Bad' for You?
That depends. A lot of healthy foods contain small amounts of saturated fat, including avocados and olive oil. Those are healthy saturated fats. But most saturated fat in our diets come from sources like dairy, bacon and red meats. Recent studies have been inconclusive about the risks of saturated fats1 and there are some potential benefits, but experts agree that they should be consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5-6 percent of your total calories.2
The key is to avoid unhealthy, processed foods that are high in saturated fats and limit your intake to the recommended amount, not to try and avoid saturated fat altogether.
Which Fat is the ‘Bad’ Fat?
The fat that deserves to be on your naughty list is called trans fat, and its sources are a little sneaky. Trans fat comes from processed, hydrogenated fats that would otherwise be healthy if they weren’t processed. You’ll notice it on food labels as “partially hydrogenated” oils. Trans fats have been linked to a host of harmful effects on your body, and they have no known benefits.1 It’s best to steer clear of trans fats to stay healthy.
Facts about Fat & Health Benefits of 'Good' Fat
Many people think the amount of fat you eat is directly related to how much fat your body gains. Here are some facts about fat that may make you think again:
- While fat does have more calories per gram (9) than protein or carbs, it also is filling
- Fat encases your organs, especially your brain, keeping them protected
- The only ‘bad’ fat is trans fat, which can contribute to health issues
As long as you eat fewer calories and remember that fat has more calories per gram, you shouldn't see any difference in your weight by adding fats to your diet.
The Best Fatty Foods for Your Diet
Knowing that some fats are good for you doesn’t give you a free pass to eat unlimited amounts of fatty foods, but reasonable amounts of fats do benefit your body. Remember that fatty foods have more calories per gram than other foods, so to avoid weight gain and related concern, you'll want to keep a close eye on your calorie intake from fats.
Looking for a Healthy Fats List?
Here are our picks for the best fatty foods to incorporate into your diet:
Avocados & Avocado Oil
Avocados and avocado oil are great natural sources of monounsaturated fats. They may also help increase the absorption of specific carotenoids – chemicals that promote heart and eye health. Avocados also provide natural soluble fiber, vitamin E, folate and potassium.
Avocado Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1 oz)
- Calories: 45
- Total Fat: 4.16 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.6 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.5 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 2.8 g
- Fiber: 1.9 g
Avocado Oil Nutrient Profile Per Serving (2 tbsp)
- Calories: 248
- Total Fat: 28 g
- Saturated Fat: 3.2 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 3.8 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 19.75 g
- Fiber: 0 g
Peanuts & Peanut Butter
Peanuts, and many nut butters, contain healthy monounsaturated fats, as well as beta-sitosterol, a plant chemical that helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels. People who eat nuts regularly have also been shown to have a lower body mass index.3 But keep an eye on your calorie intake when you eat peanuts because peanuts are not a low-calorie food.
Peanuts Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1 oz)
- Calories: 161
- Total Fat: 14 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.78 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 4.4 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 6.9 g
- Fiber: 2.4 g
Peanut Butter Nutrient Profile Per Serving (2 tbsp)
- Calories: 188
- Total Fat: 15.9 g
- Saturated Fat: 3 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 3.6 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 6.6 g
- Fiber: 1.8 g
Olives and Olive Oil
Olives and olive oils are one of nature’s most abundant sources of healthy monounsaturated fats. They also deliver phytochemicals like polyphenols. These protective compounds have several health benefits, including promoting a healthy cardiovascular system.4
Olive Nutrient Profile Per Serving (5 olives, 13.5 g)
- Calories: 20
- Total Fat: 2.07 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.27 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.2 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 1.53 g
- Fiber: 0.4 g
Olive Oil Nutrient Profile Per Serving (2 tbsp)
- Calories: 239
- Total Fat: 27g
- Saturated Fat: 3.7 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.8 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 19.7 g
- Fiber: 0 g
In the world of nuts, walnuts are king when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts have the highest levels of essential fatty acids compared to any other kind of nut. They are one of the few plant sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which support so many areas of health, including the heart, joints and brain.5 One small handful of walnuts delivers 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acid.
Walnut Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1/4 cup)
- Calories: 191
- Total Fat: 19.07 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.8 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 13.8 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 2.6 g
- Fiber: 2 g
A favorite in places like Japan and Hawaii, edamame is an immature soybean picked before the plant’s hardening stage. Edamame is high in protein and a natural source of polyunsaturated fat. This type of fat, found in plant-based foods, supports healthy cholesterol levels, which in turn helps promote a healthy cardiovascular system.
Edamame Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1 cup)
- Calories: 188
- Total Fat: 8 g
- Saturated Fat: 1 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 3.3 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 2 g
- Fiber: 8.1 g
A staple at ballparks, sunflower seeds are a nutritious, convenient snack. A handful of sunflower seeds delivers linoleic acid, another essential fatty acid. Sunflower seeds are also a natural source of vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant that supports several areas of health including cell membranes, brain and heart health.
Sunflower Seeds Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1/4 cup)
- Calories: 204
- Total Fat: 18 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.5 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 8.1 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 6.5 g
- Fiber: 3 g
Known for their omega-3 content, flaxseeds are another natural source of healthy fats. With a nutty flavor, flaxseed also makes a great-tasting addition to baked goods, yogurts, cereals and smoothies.
Flaxseed Nutrient Profile Per Serving (2 tbsp)
- Calories: 100
- Total Fat: 8.7 g
- Saturated Fat: .76 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 5.9 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 1.6 g
- Fiber: 5.6 g
Wild-caught salmon is considered the poster-child for healthy fats. Salmon is one of the very best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s a great protein source that can be featured as the main course or added to a salad. Salmon also provides phosphorus, potassium and selenium.
Salmon Nutrient Profile Per Serving (3 oz)
- Calories: 155
- Total Fat: 7 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.06 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.8 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 2.3 g
- Protein: 21.6 g
You may love the versatile almond for its delicate flavor or because it complements almost any dish, but we also love it for its ability to support cardiovascular health. Almonds are a natural source of monounsaturated fats (the same fats that made olive oil famously healthy). They also deliver vitamin E.
Almonds Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1/4 cup)
- Calories: 207
- Total Fat: 17.85 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.4 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 4.4 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 11.2 g
- Fiber: 4.5 g
Whether you roast them after carving pumpkins or enjoy them from a bag, pumpkin seeds are loaded with healthy fats. They also contain B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and the amino acid L-tryptophan which is known for promoting sleep.
Pumpkin Seeds Nutrient Profile Per Serving (1 oz)
- Calories: 126
- Total Fat: 5.5 g
- Saturated Fat: 1.04 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.5 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 1.7 g
- Fiber: 5.2 g
Looking for more A-Z Wellness tips? See Decide Your Diet: How to Decide Your Daily Diet or you can find all our Swanson Health A-Z Guide to Modern Wellness articles here.
1 The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between: Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good (Accessed 12/14/2017)
2 The American Heart Association's Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations: American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp# (Accessed 12/14/2017)
3 Impact of Peanuts and Tree Nuts on Body Weight and Healthy Weight Loss in Adults: The Journal of Nutrition. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/138/9/1741S.full (Accessed 12/14/2017)
4 5 foods containing potentially heart-healthy polyphenols: UT Southwestern Medical Center. http://www.utswmedicine.org/stories/articles/year-2016/polyphenols.html (Accessed 12/14/2017)
5 Omega-3 fatty acids: University of Maryland Medical Center. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids (Accessed 12/14/2017)
Nutritional Data from USDA Food Composition Database, Standard Reference. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/ (Accessed 01/18/2018)
(updated 1/19/2018, original publish date 05/19/2015)