“Healthy fats are critical for human development as they support a healthy brain, cell membranes, hormone production, and make us feel more satisfied after eating,” says Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, IFNCP, a functional medicine registered dietitian. “Eating healthy fats also increases your absorption of fat soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K and can help lower inflammation.”
Functional medicine pioneer Mark Hyman, MD recently outlined 16 of the healthiest fat foods on Instagram, affirming that we need fat to survive. "Every cell is made of fat; our nerve endings are made of fat; our brain is mostly fat (after water); our hormones are made of fat; our cells and metabolism run on fat," Dr. Hyman says. The key, he explains, is to eat the right fats.
So, what exactly are they? Dr. Hyman's top picks include: organic extra virgin olive oil, organic avocado oil, walnut oil, almond oil, macadamia oil, unrefined sesame oil, tahini, flax oil, hemp oil, nuts and seeds, butter (from pastured grass-fed cows, goats, or sheep), avocado, olives and other plant sources of fat, grass-fed ghee, organic humanely raised tallow, lard, duck fat, or chicken fat, coconut oil or MCT oil, and sustainable palm oil.
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That said, while Dr. Hyman’s list includes a variety of nutrient-dense fats that support human development, Titgemeier urges us to focus on the plant-based sources of fat, like olive oil, nuts, and seeds. “Additionally, some of the saturated fats that he lists—such as coconut and MCT oil—can absolutely help improve heart health, but they can also worsen lipid markers in some patients.”
This brings us to the heart of the matter: What makes these fats the best?
Titgemeier is here to unpack the distinctions between the healthiest fat foods and those to consume in moderation. According to her, it all starts with learning about the four important categories of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (omega-3s and omega-6s), saturated fats, and trans fats.
The healthiest fat foods to eat and those to consume in moderation
The most healthy types of fat
According to Titgemeier, it’s best to get most of your fats from monounsaturated fats and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Examples of these fats include extra virgin olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, nuts (such as walnuts, macadamia nuts, and almonds), seeds (like hemp seeds, chia seeds, or ground flaxseeds), and wild-caught fatty fish like wild salmon.
“Extra virgin olive oil is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet because it’s a rich source of a type of monounsaturated fat called oleic acid," Titgemeier says. "And eating nuts seven times per week has been associated with a 20 percent lower risk of death." Next, she recommends eating omega-3-rich fish—wild salmon, sardines, oysters, anchovies, herring—two to three times per week. "Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids help lower inflammation, increase the production of anti-inflammatory molecules, and help prevent and treat inflammatory diseases or conditions. These include arthritis, joint pain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, acid reflux, and more,” Titgemeier adds.
Moderately healthy types of fat
In contrast to these gold star fats, saturated fats are less optimal—but not without some controversy. Common sources include red meat, whole milk, cheese, coconut oil, and palm oil.
“Some organizations, like the American Heart Association, recommend significantly limiting saturated fats because they appear to raise levels of cholesterol in your blood, which can increase risk of heart disease and stroke, but other research findings have shown that saturated fats do not increase risk of heart disease,” says Titgemeier. “The consensus is that it depends on the person and their DNA. Another study highlighted that all saturated fats are not created equal and that eating a high saturated fat diet filled with processed foods leads to different outcomes compared to a high fat diet filled with whole foods. In my experience, there is large individual variability. For some people, eating too many saturated fat can lead to increases in cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, but for others that is not the case at all.”
Types of fat to consume in moderation
The harms of trans fats are agreed upon by nearly every doctor and nutritionist across specialties. According to Titgemeier, this is primarily due to the way that trans fats increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
“Some may want to limit industrialized vegetable and/or seed oils such as vegetable shortening, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, and rice bran oil that are high in omega-6s,” says Titgemeier. “These fats are most commonly found in prepared and packaged foods, even in ‘healthy’ gluten-free, dairy-free, or paleo foods. The problem is that too many omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and other inflammatory diseases—like arthritis, joint pain, brain fog, and so on—in addition to higher all-cause mortality.”
An ideal way to combat this is by upping your intake of foods with omega-3 fatty acids whenever possible, rather than strictly focusing on cutting back on omega-6s. For instance, try swapping safflower oil or vegetable shortening with olive oil in recipes, or try snacking on walnuts or avocado toast rather than beef jerky or packaged desserts. The taste of your dishes won't be compromised—and neither will your cardiovascular system.
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