When it comes to healthy eating, it can be hard for the average person to keep up with the latest advice. “We’ve come full circle from where we were 20 years ago,” says San Francisco-based nutritionist Sonya Angelone, remembering the 1990s when low-fat diets shot into prominence as fat was vilified by health experts.
These days, the discussion around fats and a healthy lifestyle is more nuanced. There are the so-called good fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated types found in foods like olive oil, avocadoes, nuts, grains and vegetables. And then there are the bad fats, such as saturated fats found in butter and some dairy products and—worse—transfats found in many processed foods.
The good news about good fats just keeps getting better. Recently, a Harvard University study found that people who eat more saturated and transfats increase their risk of death, while those who load up on good fats can cut their risk by more than 25 percent.
Those results didn’t surprise nutritionist Joy Bauer. “We know that good fats can lower our blood sugar, which helps to suppress and tame inflammation,” says Bauer, whose latest book From Junk Food to Joy Food features healthier comfort food recipes with fewer calories and fat. “And we know that omega-3s lower triglycerides and help with the risk of depression.”
“Fats are important,” adds Angelone. “They help make up cell membranes. The healthier the fat you eat, the healthier your cell membranes are, and the better they can communicate.”
Consumers tend to overreact to news about fat—witness all those low-fat diet fads that have come and gone—so Bauer worries that people might go overboard now as well, gorging on good-fat foods that may be high in calories. Her advice is to try to incorporate some type of healthy fat into each meal. At breakfast, sprinkle a few walnuts on your Greek yogurt. At lunch, drizzle an olive oil-based vinaigrette over your salad. At dinner, complement roasted salmon with a side of sautéed spinach.
When it comes to food to avoid, the advice is also disarmingly simple: limit—or better yet, cut out altogether—your intake of ultra processed foods. Basically, that covers anything you might buy at a convenience store. Chips, candy, snack foods. There’s a reason it’s called junk food.
If you think that advice is too obvious to be useful, think again. A March 2016 Tufts University study found that more than 50 percent of the food Americans eat is ultra processed—essentially more than half of our diets are bad fats. The same study found that only 1 percent of the average American’s daily calories come from vegetables, one of the best sources of good fats.
Another great source of good fats are nuts, which are high in a specific type of fatty acid called linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that the human body cannot produce itself. In the Harvard study, linoleic acid was found to provide an added boost to prevent cancer and heart disease. Other foods high in linoleic acid include seeds and oils such as safflower and soybean.
As with most sensible eating strategies, when it comes to fat, bad or good, moderation is key. To get your body the right type of fats, following the Mediterranean diet still reigns supreme, even after the latest round of stories and studies. Going heavy on plants, fruits, vegetables, olive oil and unrefined grains is never a bad choice.
“For the majority of the population, the moderate fat, Mediterranean style diet seems to be healthier,” says Angelone. “If you’re eating good, solid fats—and they’re real—then they have antioxidants as well.”
To make sure you get those “good, solid fats” these are among the foods Bauer and Angelone recommend you work into your regular diet:
Olive oil: If there were a gold medal in the good fat Olympics, it would be draped around that bottle of olive oil in your pantry. Just remember that for the maximum health benefit it needs to be a specific type, extra virgin, cold-pressed olive oil. “Heat and light and oxygen will make a fat turn rancid, or degraded,” explains Angelone. “Cold pressed is the best, because they haven’t used a high temperature to extract the oil.” Other oils loaded with good fats include safflower and soybean.
Nuts: As noted above, loaded with nutrient-rich omega-6 fatty acids, nuts are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. An ounce a day has been found to cut heart disease risk. Experts say to mix and match—almonds are an underrated source of calcium, walnuts throw a dose of healthy omega-3 your way as well. As for the all those nut butters that are taking up more and more shelf space at your local grocery, just make sure they haven’t been loaded up with sugar and salt. Look for nut butters where the oil has separated from the groundnuts, as that’s a sign that no unhealthy fats have been added.
Dark chocolate: It delivers a good, plant-based fat called oleic acid, but make sure you’re buying a dairy-free variety to ensure saturated fat hasn’t been thrown into the mix. Seek out a chocolate with a high cacao count, and one that lists sugar among its last ingredients (ingredients are listed by amount used). Dark chocolate is also packed with antioxidants, making it one of the healthiest indulgences possible.
Avocadoes: The amount of good, monounsaturated fat in avocadoes make them an extremely healthy choice. But they’re as high in calories as they are in fat, so this is where that moderation thing comes in. Bauer suggests using avocado as a sandwich spread instead of mayonnaise, slashing calories and adding healthy fats. She also recommends it as a smoothie base, for a healthy, rich texture.
Oily fish: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, provide your diet with a nice punch of omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight heart disease by reducing plaque in the arteries and cutting your bad cholesterol levels. Oily fish have also been found to reduce inflammation.
Kale: Leafy greens aren’t thought to be a good source of fat, but kale packs a surprisingly big omega-3 punch. Try roasted kale chips—Bauer uses a spray mister to apply a hint of olive oil and dusts them with a dash of salt before popping them into the oven. Other green vegetables that deliver good fat include broccoli, arugula, spinach and romaine lettuce.