What Are Healthy Fats? These 13 Foods Can Be Great Sources of the Nutrients

Eating foods rich in healthful fats can protect your heart and help you absorb a host of vitamins. Here are more than a dozen high-fat superstars you can enjoy as part of a well-rounded diet.

What-Are-Healthy-Fats-GettyImages-1301412044
Photo: Getty Images

What are 'healthy' fats?

Fats are a type of nutrient that you get from the food you eat—and they’re an important part of your diet. Fats can give your body the energy it needs to work properly; keep your skin and hair healthy; help you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K; fill your fat cells and insulate your body to help keep you warm; and give your body essential fatty acids needed for brain development, inflammation control, and blood clotting, according to Medline Plus.

But fat comes in many forms, and the type of fat you consume matters.

Unsaturated fat: Liquid at room temperature and generally considered heart healthy. This type of fat is found in plants like nuts and seeds, as well as in vegetable oils and seafood. On a nutrition label, look for the words “polyunsaturated fats” and “monounsaturated fats.”

Saturated fat: Solid at room temperature and found in animal foods, like meat and butter, as well as coconut and palm oil. This type of fat is often deemed “unhealthy” for your heart, but research is equivocal. "Some sources are actually good for us," Brianna Elliott, RD, a nutritionist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, tells Health.

Trans fat: Liquid fats made solid through a process called hydrogenation. The US Food and Drug Administration actually banned this type of fat—found in fried foods, baked goods, and processed snack foods—back in 2018.

"What really matters is where the source of fat is coming from. The fats found in processed junk foods and store-bought baked goods aren't so good for us, while fat from more natural foods like avocados, grass-fed beef, and olives can be beneficial" says Elliott.

So it’s true, not all fat is created equal. But here are some foods that are good sources of those “healthy” fats.

01 of 13

Olive Oil

olive oil
Getty Images

Olive oil is the original healthy fat. A tall body of research finds that it helps lower your risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Researchers have also reported that the various components of olive oil including oleic acid and secoiridoids protect your body on the cellular level to slow the aging process. "To get the most health benefits, choose extra-virgin olive oil, as it is extracted using natural methods and doesn’t go through as much processing before it reaches your plate," says Elliott.

02 of 13

Fish

fish fat
Getty Images

You may have heard someone describe fish as "brain food." That’s because these swimmers are brimming with omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain function, says Elliot. "Your brain is made up of mostly fat, so you need to consume them in order to stay sharp and healthy," she says. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 ounces of fish per week to get healthy amounts of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which feed your brain and fight inflammation and chronic disease. If you're concerned about mercury, choose salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel), according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

03 of 13

Avocados

avocado
Getty Images

Avocados do more than provide the keystone ingredient for guac. They also help lower inflammation, which is linked to cardiovascular disease. Avocados can also help to slow stomach emptying, which keeps you fuller longer and delays the return of hunger. “You need to consume healthy fats in order for your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K—pair them with a salad so you can reap the benefits of all those veggies!" says Elliot. Another easy way to get a good dose of avocados is with avocado toast, which can work as a complete breakfast, snack, lunch or even an easy dinner.

04 of 13

Eggs

eggs
Getty Images

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines lifted the longstanding hard limit on cholesterol, as many researchers now believe that saturated fat (like fatty meats) and genetic makeup are the driving force behind high cholesterol—not so much the cholesterol you eat. That's good news, since research finds that eating eggs in the morning can help you feel full and satisfied longer. "Eggs from hens that are raised on pastures or fed omega-3 enriched feed tend to be higher in omega-3s," says Elliot.

05 of 13

Tree nuts

tree nuts
Getty Images

Nuts are nature's most perfect portable snack. Each handful packs a powerhouse of nutrients including amino acids, vitamin E, and unsaturated fatty acids. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that eating nuts lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. Before you chow down, beware the "candyfication" of nuts. Skip any that say "candied," "honeyed," or "glazed," and read ingredient lists carefully. "Make sure there aren't any added ingredients, such as sugar and other vegetable oils," Elliot says. "There is no need for oils to be added to nuts because they already have their own!"

06 of 13

Nut butter

quick-easy-recipes
bernashafo/Getty Images

Those PB&Js your parent put in your lunch bag (and maybe you put in your own kid's now) are also really good for you. "Peanuts are packed with monounsaturated fats which are [often] associated with a decrease in cholesterol and heart disease,” Keri Gans, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist in New York City, previously told Health.

Today, you can buy nut butters of all kinds including almond, cashew, and more. "The healthy fats in nut butters can help to keep you full and satisfied," says Elliot. "Just make sure that the nut is the only ingredient listed (along with salt with some brands). Avoid those that have added sugars or vegetable oils."

07 of 13

Coconut oil

coconut oil
Getty Images

Coconut oil used to get a bad rap because its calories come predominantly from saturated fats. Now it's receiving some well-deserved vindication, says Elliot. The main type of saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, "which is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties," says Elliot. "Coconut oil is also unique from other sources of saturated fats because it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are metabolized differently—they go straight from the liver to the digestive tract and can then be used as a quick source of energy rather than getting stored. It's also a very stable fat and is great for cooking with high temperatures.”

08 of 13

Dark chocolate

dark chocolate
Getty Images

For years, many of us reserved chocolate for an occasional indulgence. Now we know that a daily chunk of dark chocolate, which is a source of healthy fats, actually protects the heart. Back in 2014, a team of researchers figured out why that is—when you eat dark chocolate, good gut microbes like Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria feast on it and they grow and ferment it, which produces anti-inflammatory compounds that protect your cardiovascular health.

09 of 13

Greek yogurt

yogurt-oats
Getty Images

About 70% of the fat in Greek yogurt is saturated, but you may notice about a gram of trans fat on the label. Not to worry: unless you see partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list (which is unlikely), then it's a naturally occurring type of trans fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). "While man-made trans fats are very unhealthy, ruminant trans fats like CLA may help to protect against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer," Elliot explains. "To get the most bang for your buck when it comes to yogurt, aim for grass-fed, full-fat yogurt. You'll also want to make sure to choose plain yogurt because flavored yogurts are typically full of added sugars and artificial sweeteners."

10 of 13

Olives

holiday-recipes-health-mag-dec-2020
Greg DuPree

The oil from these pressed gems steals the health spotlight, but the fruits themselves deserve a prominent position on stage—and your plate. Naturally, they are rich in oleic acid, the monounsaturated fatty acid that protects your heart. They're also rich in antioxidant polyphenols, which protect you from cell damage, as well as iron, fiber, and copper. "Expand your horizons beyond the ripe black olives found on pizzas," Leslie Bonci, RD, sports nutritionist at Pittsburgh-based company Active Eating Advice, tells Health. "Markets have huge olive bars with a wide array of sizes, colors, and textures. Even if you think you don't like olives, there may be a kind you do, you just haven't found it yet." Just keep in mind that they can be high in sodium. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day for those 14 and older.

11 of 13

Seeds

seed fat
Getty Images

Seeds are so tiny, it's easy to dismiss them as sprinkles for salads or flavoring for bread. But it's time to regard these crunchy add-ons as more than a garnish and as the nutritional powerhouses they are. Seeds like pumpkin, hemp, flax (grind these in a coffee grinder to release nutrients), chia, and sunflower are rich in monounsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids, which suppress inflammation. They're also a good source of protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, iron, and magnesium. "Pumpkin seeds have been found to be especially helpful for balancing blood sugar," nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, PhD, tells Health.

12 of 13

Soybeans

soybeans
Getty Images

Soybeans are one of the few beans that are not only rich in protein, but also a good source of essential fatty acids. So they make a fiber-rich meat substitute. "Soybeans—dried or fresh—are a healthy source of complete protein as well as isoflavones (a form of plant-based estrogen), fiber, and vitamins and minerals," says Bonci. "That's also true for soy milk, miso and tofu." That's not to say veggie corn dogs are a health food, however. "Meat analogs like Fakin Bacon are primarily soy protein without the other healthful components. So choose whole soy foods for health benefits."

13 of 13

Cheese

cheese
Getty Images

Cheese has long been regarded as a dietary villain that clogs your arteries like a stuffed pizza crust. Curbing highly processed, sodium-packed cheese products is still smart, but you can make room for a good cheese plate. Aged cheeses like Parmesan are also a good source of probiotics, which promote healthy digestion and weight. "Cheese is full of good nutrients like phosphorous, protein, and calcium that people forget about because of the fat issue," says Sims. "It also increases levels of butyric acid in the body, which has been linked to lower obesity risk and a faster metabolism." One of the healthiest ways to get your cheese fix: As a garnish on a salad. It adds flavor to your bowl, and the fat helps you absorb the nutrients in the veggies.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles