We don’t have to tell you what a disaster the low-fat craze was. We all stopped eating many of our favourite foods thinking they were bad for us (welcome back, eggs and dark chocolate!) and ended up overweight, overly full of refined carbs, and sick. In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for the first time in 35 years, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services removed the limit on total fat consumption in the American diet (though they still recommend getting less than 10% of daily calories from saturated fat).
In their words, evidence clearly shows that eating more foods rich in healthful fats like nuts, vegetable oils, and fish have protective effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. They also help you absorb a host of vitamins, fill you up so you eat less, and taste good, too. Here are 13 healthy high fat foods to stock up on to celebrate.
Types of fat
Fat comes in many forms, including:
Unsaturated: Liquid at room temperature and generally considered heart healthy. Found in plants like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and seafood.
Saturated: Solid at room temperature and found in animal foods, like meat and butter, as well as coconut and palm oil. Often deemed unhealthy for your heart, but research is equivocal. “Some sources are actually good for us,” says Brianna Elliott, RD, a nutritionist based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Trans: Liquid fats made solid through a process called hydrogenation. Found in fried foods, baked goods, and processed snack foods. These heart-health wreckers were banned from the food supply in 2015. They’ll be gone by 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.
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. Most recently, Spanish researchers publishing in the journal Molecules 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. Research shows that veggies sautéed in olive oil are also richer in antioxidants than boiled ones—and they taste better too! Don’t go crazy though. All fats are relatively high in calories and 1 tablespoon of olive oil has about 120 calories.
You may have heard your mother or grandmother 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 new Dietary Guidelines recommend eating 8 ounces 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, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel), according to the USDA.
Avocados do more than provide the keystone ingredient for amazing guacamole. They also help lower inflammation, which is linked to cardiovascular disease. In a 2014 study, a team of Mexican researchers fed a group of rats too much sugar, which gave them symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including high blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides. They then fed the rats avocado oil, which lowered levels of triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol in their blood, while keeping protective HDL cholesterol levels intact.
“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. Keep your overall calorie intake in mind; one avocado is about 320 calories. An easy way to get a good dose is with avocado toast, which can work as a complete breakfast, snack, lunch or even an easy dinner.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines lifted the longstanding hard limit on cholesterol, as many researchers now believe the cholesterol you eat doesn’t have that much bearing on the amount of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol floating in your bloodstream, and that saturated fat (like fatty meats) and genetic makeup are the real driving force behind dangerously high cholesterol. That’s good news, since research finds that eating eggs in the morning can help you feel full and satisfied longer, making it easier to resist those pastries in your office pantry. “Eggs from hens that are raised on pastures or fed omega-3 enriched feed tend to be higher in omega-3s,” says Elliot.
Nuts are nature’s most perfect portable snack. Each handful packs a powerhouse of nutrients including amino acids, vitamin E, and unsaturated fatty acids. In one long-term study published last year in the British Journal of Nutrition, eating a daily one-ounce serving of nuts was associated with a 50% lower incidence of diabetes, a 30% reduction in heart disease, and a nearly 50% lower incidence of stroke. (Note: the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council helped fund this particular study, but the general health benefits of nuts have been well established.)
Before you chow down, beware the “candyfication” of nuts. Skip any that says “candied,” “honeyed,” or “glazed,” and read ingredients 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!”
Those PB&J’s your mom put in your lunch bag (and maybe you put in your own kid’s now) are also really good for you. In a 2013 study published in Breast Cancer Research Treatment and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, girls who regularly ate peanut butter between the ages of 9 and 15 were 39% less likely to develop benign breast disease by age 30. 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.”
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.” For a tasty treat whip up a coconut oil latte!
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. Researchers from Louisiana State University reported that 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. The sweet may also keep you slim.
One study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that folks who eat chocolate five times a week have a lower BMI and are about 6 pounds lighter than those who don’t eat any.
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 flavoured yogurts are typically full of added sugars and artificial sweeteners.” The new guidelines recommend choosing low fat or fat free dairy, including milk, when possible.
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, fibre, and copper. “Expand your horizons beyond the ripe black olives found on pizzas,” says Leslie Bonci, RD, sports nutritionist at Pittsburgh-based company Active Eating Advice.
“Markets have huge olive bars with a wide array of sizes, colours, 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 Guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day for those 14 and older.
Seeds are so tiny; it’s easy to dismiss them as sprinkles for salads or flavouring 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, fibre, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, iron, and magnesium. “Pumpkin seeds have been found to be especially helpful for balancing blood sugar,” says Stanford University nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, PhD
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 fibre-rich meat substitute. “Soybeans—dried or fresh—are a healthy source of complete protein as well as isoflavones (a form of plant-based estrogen), fibre, 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.”
Cheese has long been regarded as dietary villain that packs up 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.
In fact, some studies have found that people who regularly eat cheese have lower risk of high LDL cholesterol and heart disease. 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 flavour to your bowl, and the fat helps you absorb the nutrients in the veggies.