The 5 healthy REAL food fats you should be eating and why.
Thanks to media and mediocre science, we’ve been taught to fear fat and avoid it at all costs.
There has been a large increase in the consumption of foods marketed as “low fat” because society, industry and government agencies, for decades, have preached that eating fat is bad. It was once believed that fat was the number one cause of heart disease and weight gain. However, new evidence is emerging that shows that some fats are GOOD and even beneficial for your body and heart.
As REAL Food dietitians we’ve done the research and we practice what we preach when it comes to fat and we’re here today to share with you our favorite REAL food fats and how you use them in your diet. But first, a little primer on the 3 types of fats:
Monounsaturated fats are a good source of fat! These fats are staples in Mediterranean diets associated with a healthy lifestyle and longevity. Monounsaturated fats are known to reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. These fats include olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. Try adding a one ounce portion of nuts (about ¼ cup) or avocado (½ medium) to your diet each day by sprinkling them onto a salad or having them as a small snack to get a healthy dose of this beneficial fat.
Polyunsaturated fats can benefit your health when you choose the right ones! The two polyunsaturated fats we’re most focused on are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered anti-inflammatory and help protect against heart disease and can improve brain function, which reduces memory loss and dementia. Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential for brain function, growth and development. However, they have pro-inflammatory properties and many Americans eat way more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids which puts them at risk of chronic inflammation (we won’t go into inflammation here but trust us, it’s not a good thing).
It’s important to eat a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You should aim to eat a ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids between 2:1 – 4:1 for optimal benefits. You can do this by avoiding oils that are high in omega-6’s such as: sunflower, soy, sesame and corn oil – all of which are abundant in processed foods and vegetable oils. (You can get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids from nuts, seeds and chicken).
The best way to boost your healthy fat intake is to consume foods that are naturally good sources of omega-3 with a low omega-6 content such: cold-water fish (salmon, tuna and trout), eggs, butter, coconut oil, and grass-fed meats.
Saturated fat has long been blamed as being the number one cause of heart disease but there is strong evidence showing this claim does not have strong support and there is exciting new evidence revealing the benefits of saturated fats. Eating saturated fats does increase your LDL cholesterol levels which are the cholesterol particles we commonly associate with heart disease. But saturated fat also increases the HDL cholesterol levels which are the good cholesterol particles in our bodies that eliminate the bad cholesterol and fatty acids by transporting them to the liver to be broken down and excreted. Therefore, the LDL: HDL ratio is improved with the consumption of saturated fatty acids. This ratio is a better indicator of health and risk for disease than is LDL cholesterol alone. More importantly, these fats also contain other acid components that have anti-fungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties which further builds their case for health promotion, not destruction.
If you look at food labels you’ll see that saturated fat is found in many processed foods but these are NOT healthy sources of these fats because they are also packed full of sugars and additives and are often of low quality. Healthy sources of saturated fat are red meat, full-fat dairy, butter, coconut oil and cheese (preferably organic and/or from grass-fed cows).
Now that you now know which fats are beneficial for your overall health, let’s take a more in-depth look at which foods are good sources of these fats and how you can incorporate them into your diet.
Healthy Fat Sources:
- Butter: Butter has abundant health benefits and is a health food!! It has short and medium chain fatty acids that are easy for your body to absorb and use for energy. Butter is also packed full of vitamin A and vitamin E in their most easily absorbed form which equals optimal health benefits! Try using butter for frying and when baking. When purchasing butter, remember that the nutritional value depends on how the animal was raised. Your best bet will be organic and pastured butter (meaning the cows ate grass, not grain). Brands we use: Kalona Supernatural, Organic Valley and Kerrygold
- Ghee: Ghee is a healthy and nutrient rich fat which is sacred in many cultures and is often described as “liquid gold”. Ghee is a form of clarified butter which separates the milk solids from the healthy fats. Ghee is a great source of vitamin K and other fat soluble vitamins. It’s nutty and rich flavor make it great to use when making stir fry, roasted vegetables, or as a topping for a sweet potato for those who must avoid lactose or milk proteins. Brands we use: Organic Valley/Purity Farms, Pure Indian Foods and Tin Star Foods
- Coconut oil: The health benefits of coconut oil are countless and include hair care, skin care, prevention of heart disease, and improved immunity and digestion. The presence of lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid are what give coconut oil its antioxidant and antibacterial benefits. Cooking with coconut oil is simple – just swap out your normal cooking oil for coconut oil and use coconut oil as a substitute for the fat in your recipes. The unrefined varieties have a light and pleasant coconut taste while those that are refined and tasteless and odorless. Brands we use: Nutiva, Tropical Traditions and Dr. Bronner’s
- Egg yolks: Egg yolks are a perfect and natural source of good fats! Many people tend to get egg white omelets for fear of the cholesterol and saturated fat contained in the egg yolk but.. the egg yolk contains ALL of the fat soluble vitamins and 90% of the calcium, zinc, phosphorus, and vitamins B6 and B12. So eat the yolks! Eggs we like: Local farm-raised (or backyard raised!), organic and cage-free whenever possible.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): This is the oil from the first pressing of the olives. It contains a higher concentration of phytonutrients (especially polyphenols) than virgin olive oils which come from second or third pressings. These phytonutrients are key and are what give EVOO it’s anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer in those who consume 1-2 tablespoons daily. Brands we like: Kassandrinos, Jovial and California Olive Ranch
Other fats you won’t see much of on this site because they’re often more difficult to come by or are more expensive – but deserve mentioning because they’re great REAL food fats include:
- Lard: Lard is healthy! Forget what you have been told about lard causing clogged arteries. Pure lard from pastured pigs is a traditional fat that is a good source of healthy cholesterol and it’s high in vitamin D. It’s neutral flavor makes it a great fat for cooking and baking (this is what makes your baked goods flaky – like your grandma’s pie crust!).
- Tallow: Tallow is a rendered form of beef fat that is similar to lard. Unfortunately, due to the fear of fat it’s a fat that has been shunned as being artery clogging but it is in fact a healthy and traditional food that deserves a place in a real food kitchen! New and exciting research is also emerging about its cancer fighting properties. Tallow contains 50% monounsaturated fats and is a good source of fat soluble vitamins. Tallow is also high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which has been linked to fighting cancer growth and maintaining healthy levels of blood cholesterol. Tallow is a great fat to fry with because of its high smoke point and it makes food rich and delicious.
Bottom line: Healthy fats do NOT need to be avoided or feared.
Real food saturated and unsaturated fats are both nutrient rich and are associated with countless health benefits (especially with heart disease and high cholesterol prevention) so they deserve a place in every real food kitchen!
What fats are you still unsure about eating and want to know more about? Which real food fats do you use when cooking at home?
Special Thanks to Kara Lechtenberg, Dietetic Student Intern, for contributing to this article. Kara is a senior at Colorado State University with an interest in real food, organic farming and sustainability.