What the Heck Is a Good Fat?
Straight talk from a nutritionist on the health benefits of fat and how it fits into a healthy diet, plus tips and recipes that emphasize the good fats
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Roasted Salmon with Salsa Verde; photograph by Olga Ivanova
I tend to root for the underdog, which may explain why I enjoy helping set the record straight on fat. Okay, maybe the bigger factor is that the science on fat is fascinating stuff — particularly the role dietary fats play in promoting or inhibiting inflammation, and how that, in turn, connects to disease versus wellness.
For decades (at least), dietary fat has been conflated with body fat, with the avoidance of the former recommended to avoid the accumulation of the latter. There’s much to unpack here — from societal ideals about appearance to how we parse data about weight and overall health.
But when it comes to evidence-based nutrition and medical advice, it’s vital to recognize that sweeping anti-fat biases (whether we’re talking about what’s on our plates or in our bodies) often do more harm than good.
So, what’s the deal with fat? Why do we need it? What kinds should we eat (and why are there some we should avoid)? Read on to get the skinny on fat, including tips and recipes that’ll help you emphasize the good (read: health-promoting) ones.
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Fat facts & FAQs
You've probably got lots of questions about good vs. bad fat. Let's start demystifying fat.
Assortment of healthy fat sources, including nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and fatty fish
What is fat and why do we need it?
Fat is a macronutrient — one of three major nutrient sources (the others are carbohydrate and protein) — that our bodies require to function. (Body fat, incidentally, is metabolically active tissue and the primary storage form for extra energy. When we eat more fuel than we use — whether from fat, carbohydrate, or protein — our bodies preferentially store it as fat.)
Fat is comprised, in part, of various fatty acids. Some of these are essential fatty acids (EFAs) — in other words, our bodies need them, but can’t make them. How do we get EFAs, then? By eating them, of course!
Dietary fat is an important multitasker. It helps ensure optimal absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K — which in turn are major players in everything from eyesight and bone health to immunity and blood clotting. It plays a role in regulating appetite, controlling blood glucose levels, and promoting satiety (the feeling of satisfaction after a meal or snack). Good fats (more on those below) can favorably influence one’s blood lipid profile (aka blood cholesterol levels), blood pressure, and heart health. What may be most exciting is that certain good fats also have anti-inflammatory properties. Since many chronic illnesses are associated with inflammation — including type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, various cancers, neurodegenerative conditions, and autoimmune diseases — it makes sense to favor fats that help tamp down inflammation.
If fat’s so great, why is the advice to cut fat so prevalent?
Of the three macronutrients, fat is the most concentrated source of energy, providing 9 calories (energy units) per gram, versus the 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein. That caloric disparity has driven a lot of misguided nutrition advice — chiefly that drastically reducing fat intake is an easy way to cut calories and lose weight.
Setting aside the flawed assertion that weight loss is the singular key to disease prevention and management, there are several problems with a hardline approach to dietary fat. For starters, numerous studies have demonstrated that reducing overall caloric intake and increasing physical activity is more effective (and sustainable) than a focus on slashing calories from a single macronutrient group. Moreover, when we cut fat, we tend to add extra calories from other sources — and we’re not talking nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, whole grains. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, packaged foods were emblazoned with low-fat and fat-free labels but loaded with added sugars.
The “eat less fat” mantra may reflect an attempt to simplify health messaging, but it doesn’t differentiate between types of fat. Some fats exert harmful effects and should be minimized (i.e. trans fats), while others promote health (i.e. Omega-3 fatty acids) and should ideally replace the bad guys.
Which fats are good and which should I avoid?
First, it’s important to note that all fats include a mix of fatty acids. When we talk about monounsaturated fat, we’re really talking about a fat source that’s predominantly monounsaturated. Olive oil, for example, is an exceptional source of monounsaturated fat. The fact that it also contains a smaller proportion of saturated fat doesn’t negate the benefits it confers.
There are two major classes of fats: saturated and unsaturated. (The terms refer to their chemical structures.)
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and are found in high concentrations in animal foods, like meat, butter, cheese, etc. High saturated fat intake can raise LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, both of which are associated with cardiovascular disease; replacing most saturated fats with unsaturated ones can significantly decrease the risk of heart disease and its progression. One of the best ways to do this? Opt for meatless meals several times a week.
Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and are found in high concentration in plant foods, including oils, seeds, and nuts. Under the unsaturated umbrella there are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. When used in place of saturated fats, both can help improve cholesterol levels, though monounsaturated fats may have an edge in boosting high-density lipoprotein (HDL, aka “good” cholesterol) levels.
Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) sources include olive oil, canola oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, most nuts, seeds, and avocados. Monounsaturated fats exert anti-inflammatory effects, and many researchers suggest these should be our primary fat sources.
Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) sources include sunflower seeds, soybean oil, walnuts, and walnut oil. Some polyunsaturated fats are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote heart and brain health, among other benefits. Cold water fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are particularly rich in Omega-3s.
Scientists are still working to resolve questions about how much MUFA versus PUFA is ideal, what role Omega-6 PUFAs play in inflammation, and whether the ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3 PUFAs is out of whack in modern diets. On a practical level, though, the science is clear that MUFAs and Omega-3-rich PUFAs are good fats, and an eating pattern that includes a variety of unsaturated fat sources makes sense.
Trans fats are a good idea gone very, very bad. In attempts to enhance the shelf life and versatility of liquid vegetable oils, scientists began experimenting with hydrogenation in the early 1900s, which could be used to turn oils semi-solid. Industrial food manufacturers and consumers embraced vegetable shortening, and later margarine, both of which were viewed as economical, not to mention healthier alternatives to animal fats like tallow, lard, and butter. Unfortunately, it took almost a century before the dangers of industrial trans fats were widely recognized by the scientific community, and even longer to get their widespread use regulated. Trans fats arguably exert the most dangerous effects on health — they raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and are associated with inflammatory illnesses including heart disease and diabetes. If there’s a type of fat to avoid whenever possible, it’s trans fat. “Partially-hydrogenated” on a food label means bad fat. Skip it.
What about coconut oil — isn’t it healthy?
Coconut and palm oils are unusual in that both are plant oils abundant in saturated fat. Yet thanks to social media influencers and the food industry, both have a healthy food gloss that’s not entirely accurate.
Coconut oil’s popularity may stem from a misreading of the science that looked at both its composition and its use in the context of traditional diets. But it’s a big leap to claim that snacking on coconut oil keto bombs is healthy because indigenous Polynesian populations have historically enjoyed low cardiovascular disease rates while eating coconut.
Palm oil is ubiquitous in processed foods, but its production is fraught thanks to concerns including deforestation and the use of child labor. Plus, as a saturated fat source, palm oil intake should be limited.
How much fat should we eat?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, total fat intake should be between 20% to 35% of daily calories, with no more than 10% coming from saturated fat sources. (The American Heart Association recommends capping saturated fat at 5% to 6%. In a 2,000 calorie eating pattern, that would be about 13 grams of saturated fat.)
The truth is, most Americans don’t count calories, or even know how many they need. User-friendly healthy eating patterns, like Oldways' heritage diet pyramids or USDA's interactive MyPlate guide can make it easier to figure out. And simply focusing on swapping saturated fats with unsaturated ones (say, spreading your toast with nut butter or avocado instead of butter or trading red meat for fish) can still have a major impact on improving health.
Read on for help homing in on healthy fats, and delicious recipes that use them.
Olive oil — particularly antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil — is a wonderful source of monounsaturated fat. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and is a cornerstone of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which has been studied extensively for its nutritional and therapeutic benefits.
Esteemed Italian food expert Lidia Bastianich shares her nonna’s technique for making silky-smooth (and totally dairy-free) mashed potatoes, enriched with a healthy glug of extra-virgin olive oil.
Whether you’re looking for a meatless main or a robust veggie side, this recipe is ideal. It features both olive oil and olives, with nutrient- and MUFA-rich sesame seeds as a bonus.
Olives and olive oil enhance this simple, satisfying, garlic- and fresh herb-enhanced pasta. Customize it with roasted veggies or Omega-3-rich sardines or grilled salmon.
This easy-to-prepare couscous makes a fantastic side dish. Anchovies complement the briny olives, and supply omega-3 fatty acids.
Yes, you can bake with extra virgin olive oil. Use one with fruity notes to enhance the citrus flavor in this simple cake. Throw in a handful of blueberries if you’d like.
Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, plus they’re protein- and fiber-rich too. Peanuts and many tree nuts — including almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, macadamias, and pistachios — provide mostly MUFAs. Walnuts are unusual among nuts in that they’re a rich source of PUFAs, and are abundant in the Omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
You don’t really need a recipe for trail mix, but it’s nice to have a guide to help get the proportion of crunchy nuts to chewy dried fruit just right. Consider this a totally tweakable template and play around with different nuts and fruits.
Crunchy walnuts are a savory counterpoint to roasted butternut and sweet pears.
Top these easy, elegant confections with your favorite nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Delicious fact: About half the fat in dark chocolate comes from monounsaturated oleic acid.
Peanuts and tree nuts are major allergens, but with the exception of sesame, most seeds are not. They’re a great way to add crunch, textural interest, and healthy fats to the diet. (Tip: if you’re allergic to nuts, take care to source seeds that are processed in nut-free facilities.)
This video-guided recipe blends roasted carrots with sesame tahini, olive oil, and the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout, for a scrumptious savory spread that’s rich in MUFAs.
Pine nuts (which are actually seeds), olive oil, and hemp seeds add a nice balance of MUFAs, PUFAs, and Omega-3 fatty acids to this nutrient-dense kale pesto.
Chia seeds are a great plant source of Omega-3s, and make a clever stand-in for the poppy seeds in many lemon cake recipes. MUFA-rich olive oil is featured, too.
Sunflower butter, hemp hearts, and fiber-rich unsweetened coconut (everything in moderation!) form the base of these chocolate chip-studded treats. The optional pumpkin seeds bump up the nutrients and heart-healthy fats.
When it comes to Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from marine sources appear to be the most easily utilized and beneficial. Ideally, aim to eat at least a couple of servings of Omega-3-rich fish each week.
It’s important to avoid fish that are high in mercury, a neurotoxic heavy metal. These include shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. Albacore tuna is higher in mercury than other species and should be limited to no more than one serving per week, especially by children and those who are pregnant or nursing. (Canned light tuna and smaller species like skipjack are safer options).
Sardines are low on the food chain, possibly because as incredibly rich sources of Omega-3, they’re great eating for lots of species — including humans. They’re sustainably fished and because they’re so small, they’re very low in mercury.
Both wild and farmed salmon are among the richest sources of DHA and EPA. The olive oil in the salsa verde provides a healthy dose of MUFAs, too.
Comparatively speaking, cod isn’t the best fish source of Omega-3s. But 284 mg in a 6-ounce serving is still a respectable amount, especially if you eat other DHA- and EPA-abundant fish throughout the week.
Though king mackerel should be avoided, canned mackerel usually comes from Atlantic mackerel stocks, which are smaller fish low in mercury and high in Omega-3s. With their mild flavor, they’re a good choice for canned fish newbies. This recipe would also be great with sardines.
These protein-packed toasts boast monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats — and a fresh parsley salad accent that gives them a bistro-worthy vibe.
With their silky, buttery texture, and culinary versatility, it’s no wonder avocados are such a well-loved source of monounsaturated fat.
Is there one right way to make avocado toast? No! Is it fun to try a recipe that includes strong opinions about the best way to make this elemental delight? Yup! Don’t miss the tasty variations, and feel free to slice the avocado instead of smashing it.
Avocado replaces the mayo in these lush deviled eggs. Want to amp up their good fat power? Opt for Omega-3 enriched eggs.
Avocados and extra virgin olive oil make this fab salad a MUFA powerhouse. Check out the recipe videos for techniques and tips from Chef Joel Gamoran.
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