Avocado, olive oil, and salmon top most lists of the healthiest fat-rich foods. All three live up to the hype: Avocado and olive oil both contain beneficial monounsaturated fat, while salmon is rich in DHA and EPA, the fatty acids found in fish oil that have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.
Three foods that probably don’t make your list are eggs, whole fat dairy, and cheese. This is a mistake because these foods have several surprising health benefits along with being tasty and convenient. Unfortunately, public health experts are still so scared of saturated fat that even when they are presented with evidence that these foods are beneficial, they are unable to overcome their bias and see the sense of the issue. This article will work to rectify this and present science-backed information about the health benefits of these foods.
Eggs are a perfect protein source providing the greatest number of bioavailable amino acids of all foods. The yolks are rich in the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein that can lower inflammation and improve a variety of health markers including cholesterol and triglycerides. For example, one study found that including an egg every day at breakfast lowered inflammatory markers more than “heart healthy” oatmeal (1). There was also no difference in cholesterol levels between the egg and oatmeal groups.
Other studies have shown that regularly eating eggs can increase the “good” HDL cholesterol and slightly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol, resulting in a better cholesterol profile. For example, a study that had overweight men eat 3 daily eggs as part of a low-carb diet found that subjects raised levels of HDL by 10 points, while maintaining total cholesterol steady at 194 mg/ld. They also lost nearly 5 kg and experienced a 45 percent decrease in triglycerides—a measurement of fatty acids in the blood stream that is a primary marker for heart disease (2).
Researchers believe that eating eggs improves cholesterol and triglycerides by raising levels of adiponectin, a hormone involved in metabolic function. It can promote weight loss by moderating appetite and raising levels of hormones that have a satiating effect.
The Bottom Line: Regularly eating eggs within the context of a healthy diet can lower inflammation, help with weight management, and improve cardiovascular disease risk markers.
Few people think of cheese as a “health” food but research shows there are many reasons to include it in your diet regularly. Cheese is a good source of protein and it contains a variety of nutrients that have health protective properties. First, cheese provides the bone-building nutrients calcium and vitamin K. Many people get excited about the vitamin K in leafy greens, but unfortunately, this version of vitamin K is not as bioavailable as vitamin K that comes from animal products like cheese.
Regularly eating cheese appears to be protective against obesity as well. For example, in the Framingham Heart Study, results showed that there was no association between cheese consumption and weight gain over a 13-year period (5). This study also looked at the effects of dairy intake and found that people who ate more dairy had better weight maintenance compared to those who ate less. A large-scale analysis further supports this: When people are trying to lose body fat, eating more dairy foods was linked to greater loss of body fat, with high-dairy diets producing a 1.29 kg decrease in body fat (6).
Cheese also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat that is known to lower inflammation and reduce risk of cancer. For example, in one study, both cheese and yogurt were linked to significantly lower incidence of colon cancer (3).
Other studies have shown that people with diets higher in cheese have lower levels of cardiovascular inflammation and lower LDL cholesterol. In a study that followed a large group of Swedish women for 12 years, those that ate the most cheese had a 26 percent lower risk of heart attacks than those who ate the least (4). Dairy intake was quite high in the group with the lowest heart attack risk: The average woman enjoyed 8.4 servings of dairy a day, of which more than half was cheese.
Scientists theorize that cheese provides butyrate, which is an anti-inflammatory compound that feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut. Butyrate may also have metabolic benefits, contributing to better body composition.
Another interesting benefit of regularly eating cheese is that it can protect against cavities. Cheese has an acid buffering effect on the teeth and boosts the flow of saliva to remove debris in the mouth, thereby decreasing tooth erosion. It also contains calcium, phosphorous, and protein, which can improve the mineralization of tooth enamel.
The Bottom Line: Including cheese in the context of an overall healthy diet can protect against disease (heart disease, tooth decay, cancer, osteoporosis), while helping minimize fat gain as you age.
Whole Fat Dairy
Like cheese, whole fat dairy (yogurt, milk, fermented dairy products) has several benefits over low-fat variations. First, it provides the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K that are essential for bone and metabolic health. Second, it provides CLA and butyrate that have cancer fighting properties and may help lower inflammation.
Whole fat dairy also appears to have weight management benefits: Research shows that people who eat more dairy are leaner than those who rely on reduced-fat versions, likely because the combination of protein and fat in whole dairy promotes satiety and slows digestion, leading to a more moderate increase in insulin (5).
The Bottom Line: Enjoying whole-fat dairy as part of a well-designed diet can improve metabolic health and help manage body weight by reducing appetite and countering inflammation.