Dietary fat has made a HUGE comeback in recent years. Pretty much everyone with any sense at all agrees that healthy fats are an essential part of the perfect diet. They’re delicious, improve absorption of nutrients from other foods, and supply necessary vitamins and compounds for peak health and performance.
The question then is what exactly is “healthy” fat?
With all the disagreement about nutrition these days this can be hard to answer. Most experts agree that olive oil is healthy, but after that, common ground can be hard to find. This article will help you cut through the confusion and give you ten of the healthiest fats, with research to back them up.
Called an “anti-obesity” food by scientists, the avocado is jam-packed with nutrients and antioxidants. The fat it contains is one of the healthiest—monounsaturated fat, which studies suggest can help you stay lean if you eat it regularly. This kind of fat increases the body’s ability to burn fat and raises energy expenditure, while also dampening appetite.
The body composition effect is strong: An analysis of the diets of 17,567 Americans showed that those who ate more avocados had significantly lower body weight and waist circumference and a 50 percent lower risk of metabolic syndrome. Another study found that men following a diet high in monounsaturated fat that also included a lot of vegetables lost body fat without needing to restrict calories.
#2: Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is abundant in a medium chain fatty acid that appears to protect your brain, manage blood sugar, and improve energy use in the body so you lose fat. Coconut oil doesn’t enter the cholesterol cycle, so the fat it contains won’t be deposited in fat cells. And it appears to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol for a more favorable LDL-to-HDL ratio, which is important since many mainstream doctors still discourage the use of coconut oil due to its high saturated fat content.
There’s even research to support the use of coconut oil for body composition: A recent study of people in Malaysia, where the coconut is native, found that eating 30 ml of coconut oil 3 times a day for a month led to body fat loss and trimmer waist lines.
#3: Cacao Nibs/Dark Chocolate/Cocoa Butter
Take cocoa beans and roast them, chop them into small pieces and you have cacao nibs—one of the most delicious healthy fat foods on the planet! They’re minimally processed and provide a nice dose of monounsaturated fat along with magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus. They’re also packed with antioxidants that are linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Some studies even show dark chocolate consumption is linked to a leaner body composition. Cocoa butter and regular old dark chocolate (above 70% cocoa solids) contain the same healthy fats and antioxidants, although chocolate does contain added sugar.
#4: Olives/Olive Oil
Olives and olive oil vie for the top spot when it comes to healthiest fats on the planet. High in monounsaturated fat and anti-inflammatory nutrients, olive oil consumption is linked to a healthier heart, better insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure.
Olive oil may be protective against obesity as well because it stimulates thermogenesis, or the burning of calories, by raising body temperature. It also reduces chronic inflammation for better insulin sensitivity and a higher metabolic rate. For example, a 3-year study found that subjects who included a lot of olive oil within a Mediterranean-style diet lost body fat compared to those who ate a lower fat diet despite eating about 300 more calories a day.
Salmon and other fatty fish like sardines and halibut provide the super healthy anti-inflammatory fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are linked to everything from better cognition to better cardiovascular health. These fats also promote leanness and longevity by eradicating inflammation and improving a whole cascade of hormones from cortisol to insulin. For instance, the omega-3 fats increase the sensitivity of your cells to insulin so that you're more likely to store the carbs you eat as glycogen in the muscle instead of as fat.
Walnuts are rich in polyphenols and they provide the third but less heralded omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA isn’t a substitute for EPA and DHA that are found in fish, but it is associated with better health, cognition, and lower inflammation. Walnuts may also improve bone health and help prevent osteoporosis.
Interestingly, eating walnuts before a stress test led to a lower cortisol response. Researchers believe the combination of antioxidants and omega-3s allowed for better stress management and improved hormone and neurotransmitter function.
#7: Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds provide healthy monounsaturated fat, and are high in fiber, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B1. Best of all, sesame seeds have been shown to be very effective at helping to detoxify excess estrogen from the body. This is important for both men and women because it may lower prostate and breast cancer risk. Sesame seeds have also been shown to lower blood pressure and protect the liver from oxidative damage. Grind them up into tahini and use as a condiment for extra flavor on vegetables or meats.
Good quality cheese has been found to improve gut microbiota by raising levels of something called butyrate. Better bacteria in the intestines has major implications for health: It means better cholesterol, less inflammation, and a leaner body composition. Bone health, mood, and cognition may also improve. Why then is cheese often thought of as an unhealthy food?
It IS easy to overeat, being so creamy and delicious, so it’s very important to be mindful of portions and use it as a condiment rather than a main meal. And it’s high in saturated fat, which still scares many people. But the fact is, saturated fat does NOT cause heart disease, and although you don’t want it to be the only source of fat in your diet, consuming it in the right ratios with mono- and poly-unsaturated fat is completely healthy.
#9: Almond Butter
Rich in protein and monounsaturated fat, almonds score high for improving overall health, keeping you lean, and improving exercise performance. One 4-week study found that trained cyclists who ate almonds daily improved time trial performance by boosting energy use and antioxidant capacity. In the short-term this means healthy fats make you faster, but in the long run it means you’ll have a quicker recovery because the body will produce less oxidative stress during training.
Another cool thing about almonds, and most other nuts for that matter, is that they increase thermogenesis just like olive oil, which means that people are more likely to lose body fat when they add nuts to their diet than when they eat a low-calorie diet. One study found that participants who ate a moderate-fat diet that included nuts five times a week lost two times more weight than those who ate a similar low-fat diet that didn’t include nuts. When choosing almond butter, always read the label to make sure it doesn’t have sugar or trans fat added—stick with pure almonds and maybe a little salt.
#10: Whole Fat Yogurt
Reduced-fat yogurt and dairy is one of the worst things to come out of the low-fat craze (well, not as bad as margarine, but it’s not doing anyone any favors). Research shows that people who eat more whole dairy are leaner, which is probably because the combination of protein and fat in whole dairy slows digestion and leads to a more moderate increase in insulin compared to low-fat varieties.
Whole yogurt is also delicious and it provides live and active cultures, bioavailable vitamins A, D, and K, and the anti-inflammatory CLA—all benefits that you won’t get from reduced-fat dairy products. Finally, compared to whole dairy, reduced-fat dairy increases circulating triglycerides, which is a risk factor for heart disease.