Most people have been trained to choose low-fat foods over high-fat foods. Fat has always been positioned as a dietary enemy, so it’s no wonder it can get totally confusing when doctors and dietitians sing the praises of what they call healthy fats. You probably know that avocado is one of them, and that this nutrition revelation is responsible for their rise from guac staple to Instagram stardom in recent years. And of course there’s olive oil, the lynchpin of the Mediterranean Diet. But there are plenty more healthy, high-fat foods you should definitely be working into your meals and snacks on a regular basis. Here’s what you ought to know.
WHAT HEALTHY FATS ARE
The phrase “healthy fat” usually refers to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. What makes them healthy is that, among other heart-health benefits, they help reduce LDL cholesterol, the kind that clogs your arteries. Research also shows they can benefit insulin and blood sugar levels, decreasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
“Monounsaturated fats are among the healthiest of all fats,” Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., senior dietician at UCLA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor at the Fielding School of Public Health, tells SELF. “These are anti-inflammatory, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and are full of healthy nutrients.”
Polyunsaturated fats can also be healthy. The two main types are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, essential fats our bodies need for brain function and cell growth. Omega-3s are beneficial for every aspect of heart health, and are mostly found in fish and algae, nuts, and seeds. “Other polyunsaturated fats, [omega-6s], can be found in certain plant-based oils,” Hunnes adds. “They’re not particularly harmful, but not necessarily beneficial the way omega-3s and monounsaturated fats are.” Omega-6s work alongside omega-3s to lower LDL cholesterol, but research suggests that eating more omega-6 than -3 may contribute to inflammation and weight gain, so the key is to make sure your omega-3 intake is always higher.
WHAT UNHEALTHY FATS ARE
One easy rule: You should always avoid trans fats—they’re listed on the nutrition label as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Most are artificial and raise your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol (the good kind that helps keep blood vessels clear). According to the American Heart Association, trans fats increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and are associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
The guidance on saturated fat is a little more complicated. Old nutrition research said saturated fat was really bad for your cholesterol levels, but newer information suggests it has a more neutral effect. The topic is very touchy, and the USDA Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association still recommend limiting your intake and opting for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead. Many of the healthy foods below have some saturated fat in them, but it doesn’t make up the majority of the fat content and won’t negate the positive effects of the healthier fats.
One medium avocado has approximately 23 grams of fat, but it is primarily monounsaturated fat. Plus, a medium avocado contains 40 percent of your daily fiber needs, is naturally sodium- and cholesterol-free, and is a good source of lutein, an antioxidant that may protect your vision. Try enjoying it in place of foods that are higher in less-healthy saturated fat—use 1/5 of a medium avocado to replace the mayo on your sandwich, the butter on your toast, or the sour cream on your baked potato. Keep in mind that they’re pretty high in calories, so you generally want to stick to no more than 1/4 an avocado at a time.
Walnuts are one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha linoleic acid, an omega-3 found in plants. A recent study linked a handful per day to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol as well as improved blood vessel function. Research has also shown that eating nuts appears to reduce the risk of blood clots that can cause heart attacks as well as improve the health of the lining of our arteries.
3. PLUS OTHER NUTS, LIKE ALMONDS AND PISTACHIOS
Nuts like pecans, pistachios, cashews, and almonds also pack a lot of healthy fats. Almonds are the richest in vitamin E, and pistachios have lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids important for eye health. All you need to eat is a 1/4 cup serving per day to reap the benefits. Some varieties are fattier than others, like cashews and macademia nuts, so you need to pay closer attention to serving sizes. (Nuts have, on average, 45 grams of fat per cup.) Nutritionists love pistachios because the fact that you have to shell them helps you eat slower and naturally control portion size. The peanut (technically a legume) contains monounsaturated fats but all of its polyunsaturated fats are omega-6s, which evidence suggests may not do us any favors.
4. NUT AND SEED BUTTERS
An easier way to get all the fatty goodness of nuts may be from a nut or seed butter. Try almond and cashew, or sunflower seed butter, for a plant-based dose of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All you need is 2 tablespoons—spread it on toast, or eat it with fresh apple slices. Choose all-natural nut butters with as few ingredients as possible.
One cup of black olives has 15 grams of fat, but again, it is mainly monounsaturated. Plus, no matter what variety of olive you enjoy, they all contain many other beneficial nutrients as well, such as hydroxytyrosol, a phytonutrient that has long been linked to cancer prevention. New research is showing that this phytonutrient may play a role in reducing bone loss as well. And if you have allergies or other inflammatory conditions, olives might be just the snack for you as research suggests that olive extracts function as anti-histamines on the cellular level. Even with all these benefits, it is important to be mindful of your serving size as olives can be high in sodium. Stick to 5 large or 10 small olives as the perfect portion.
6. OLIVE OIL
It’s become the go-to cooking oil in many kitchens for a good reason: Olive oil is full of monounsaturated fats. But don’t be too heavy-handed with that pour—just one tablespoon has 14 grams of fat.
7. GROUND FLAXSEED
One cup of ground flaxseed has a whopping 48 grams of fat, but it’s all healthy, unsaturated fat. And here’s the thing, you only need 1-2 tablespoons to reap the benefits. Flaxseed is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, too, so ground flaxseed is a great way for vegetarians (or those who don’t eat fish) to meet their need. Also, flaxseed contains up to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods. These plant nutrients contain both plant estrogen and antioxidant properties, and research suggests that they may help prevent certain types of cancer. Last, but not least, flaxseed contains both insoluble and soluble fiber, so it can help you feel fuller longer as well as reduce cholesterol and promote heart health. Sprinkle a little bit on yogurt or oatmeal, or scoop a spoonful into a smoothie. Or try baking it into this delicious, nutty pie crust.
Oily fish like salmon (and sardines, mackerel, and trout) are full of omega-3 fatty acids, and known to help boost heart health. It’s one of the best ways to get the essential fat. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings weekly to get the best benefits. Here are 20 simple recipes to try.
Tuna also packs a high amount of healthy fats and omega-3s. We’re talking both the conveniently canned stuff and the kind you find at your favorite sushi spot. It’s versatile—tuna steaks, tuna burgers, tuna salad, the options are endless—so it’s pretty easy to fit into your diet. Like salmon, you should limit your intake to about 12 ounces (two meals) a week to avoid overexposure to things like mercury that can be found in small amounts in seafood.
10. DARK CHOCOLATE
Yes, that’s right. One ounce (about 3 fingers’ worth) of dark chocolate counts as one serving and contains about 9 grams of fat. About half of its fat content is saturated, but it also contains healthy fats and numerous other healthy nutrients—vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and flavonoids (plant-based antioxidants). And did you know a 1-ounce portion of dark chocolate also boasts 3 grams of fiber? Practically a vegetable. Aim for a cocoa content of at least 70 percent for the highest levels of flavonoids.
It’s not as high in fat as the other foods on this list, but tofu is still a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A modest, 3-ounce portion of super firm tofu contains 5 to 6 grams of fat and about 1 gram of saturated fat, but this is naturally-occurring fat from the soybeans, and tofu is considered a health food for a reason. It’s a solid plant-based protein that’s low in sodium and provides nearly a quarter of your daily calcium needs. Check out these 11 delicious recipes that are perfect for tofu first-timers.
Full of both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, soybeans are also a great source of plant-based protein and fiber. Enjoy them boiled and salted as a tasty and filling snack, or puree it into a green-hued twist on your usual hummus.
13. SUNFLOWER SEEDS
Sprinkle them on top of your salad, or eat a small handful, for a mega dose of healthy fats, protein, and fiber.
14. CHIA SEEDS
These small but mighty seeds are loaded with omega-3s, fiber, protein, essential minerals, and antioxidants. Their popularity as a superfood is well deserved—you can toss a tablespoon into your smoothies for a quick fat, fiber, and protein boost, or soak them overnight for a ready-when-you-wake-up breakfast parfait. You can even use them to add nutritional punch to your desserts.
Eggs are an inexpensive and easy source of protein. People often think egg whites are a healthier option than whole eggs because they contain less fat, but while it’s true that the egg yolk contains some fat, it’s also packed with important nutrients. One whole egg contains 5 grams of fat, but only 1.5 grams are saturated. Whole eggs are also a good source of choline (one egg yolk has about 300 micrograms), an important B vitamin that helps regulate the brain, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. As for the cholesterol? The latest nutrition research has found that eating cholesterol doesn’t raise our blood cholesterol. In fact, research has linked moderate egg consumption to improved heart health.
THESE FOODS ARE HIGHER IN SATURATED FAT AND SHOULD BE EATEN MORE SPARINGLY, BUT CAN BE PART OF A HEALTHY DIET:
16. LEAN GRASS-FED BEEF AND PORK
Often thought of as a high-fat food, steak is actually not as high in fat as you may think, particularly if you choose one of these lean cuts, which have 5 grams of fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving, on average. What’s more, lean beef is an excellent source of protein, iron, and zinc, all important nutrients for active women. One 3-ounce portion of lean beef packs a whopping 25 grams of muscle-building protein, three times the iron (which is important for carrying the oxygen in your blood to your brain and muscles) of 1 cup of spinach, and a third of your daily zinc needs to help support your immune system. Lean cuts of pork, like pork tenderloin, can also be a good source of fat when eaten in moderation. Cured and processed pork, like bacon, often contains loads of sodium and other preservatives like nitrates (which have been linked to increased heart disease and cancer risk), so they’re not the healthiest way to consume the other white meat.
17. FULL-FAT MILK
As SELF has previously reported, research is starting to suggest that consuming full-fat dairy products over low-fat or fat-free ones may have weight-control benefits. It may even help reduce type 2 diabetes risk. One cup (8 ounces) of whole milk contains 8 grams of fat with 5 grams saturated fat versus skim milk, which contains none of either. Other proponents of keeping the fat in dairy products point out that you need fat to absorb the vitamin A and D in the milk, since they are fat-soluble vitamins.
18. FULL-FAT YOGURT
When you’re shopping for yogurt, make sure to buy one that contains active cultures to reap the gut health benefits. And opt for a plain option over fruit-flavored—they tend to pack an astounding amount of added sugar. Feel free to toss in some heart-healthy nuts and some fresh fruit, though.
19. PARMESAN CHEESE
Cheese often gets a bad-rap for being a high-fat food—especially hard, full-fat cheeses like Parmesan. While it is true that cheeses have more saturated fats than plant based foods, they (especially Parmesan, which contains 8 grams fat and 5 grams saturated fat per ounce), provide loads of other nutrients as well. In fact, Parm tops the cheese charts in terms of its bone-building calcium content, providing nearly a third of your daily calcium needs. Ounce for ounce, it has more protein than any other food—and yes, we are including meat and eggs on that list!