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.
First, a quick breakdown of what “healthy fat” actually means.
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.
And what the 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.
Here are the best food sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated 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.