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daily nutrition & health

4 Great Sources of Healthy Fats and How to Add Them to Your Diet

Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training 19 July 2023

What are healthy fats? It may sound like a contradiction, but there are fats that are not only good for you but essential to a complete and nutritious diet. Healthy fats can also help promote heart health, so there’s no reason to completely avoid all fats in your diet. The key is knowing the difference between healthy fats vs. unhealthy fats, and more importantly, knowing the best sources of healthy fats.

Let’s dive deeper into what foods have them and which ones may be right for you.

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats: Which Are Better?

The fats you eat can be divided up into two broad categories: saturated (unhealthy) and unsaturated (healthy) fats.

  • Unsaturated fats are considered better for you because they are primarily derived from plant foods. Moreover, they can help keep your blood cholesterol levels within a normal range.
  • On the other hand, a diet that contains a lot of saturated fats, which are primarily found in animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk and meat, can contribute to a rise in blood cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into two categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.

  • You’ll find monounsaturated fats in nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil and avocados. They’re considered heart-healthy when eaten in moderate amounts – and in place of the less healthy saturated fats.
  • Polyunsaturated fats can be further classified as either "omega-3" or "omega-6"fats. While your body requires both types, you need them in the proper balance to promote good health. The problem for most of us is that we eat too many omega-6 fats (mainly from fried foods, snack foods and sweet baked goods) and not enough omega-3s (provided by fish, nuts, seeds and leafy greens).

Healthy Fats and Weight Loss: Keep Your Calories in Check

One thing to keep in mind – added fats do add calories to your diet. All oils, for example –regardless of their source – have about 120 calories per tablespoon. Just because olive oil is a healthy fat, doesn’t mean you should pour it all over your food. Small amounts of fat can add a lot of flavor to foods, so use them sparingly and focus on the healthy ones.

My Top List of Foods With Healthy Fats

The foods that contain heart-healthy fats include nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil, seafood,and avocados. Here are some ways to work more of these into your day.

Nuts and Seeds

Almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans are considered “tree nuts,” which have more heart-healthy omega-3s than peanuts (which aren’t actually nuts, they’re beans). Try a few of these tips to get more nuts and seeds into your diet:

  • A handful of nuts makes a filling snack.
  • Try stirring some nut butter into oatmeal, yogurt or protein shakes, or spread some on apple slices for a quick snack.
  • Finely ground nuts make a delicious crispy coating for fish or chicken. Dip fish filets or chicken breasts into beaten egg whites, then lightly coat with ground nuts. Season with salt and pepper, then bake or sauté.
  • Sprinkle nuts or seeds into your shakes or green salads and on top of cooked vegetables, yogurt or hot cereal.
  • Add nuts and seeds to trail mix.
  • Tahini (sesame seed paste) makes a delicious base for a salad dressing or sauce.

Olive Oil and Olives

Olive oil is also one of the richest sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. If the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil is too strong for you, look for "light" olive oils, which have the same calories as regular olive oil but are lighter in flavor.

  • Use olive oil to replace vegetable oils and butter when you cook.
  • Make your own salad dressing with 2 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice or vinegar and
    salt and pepper to taste.
  • Use a tiny bit of olive oil to flavor cooked vegetables.
  • Add whole olives to salads, chopped olives to pasta sauces or stir them into whole-
    grain dishes after cooking.
  • Try an olive spread for whole-grain crackers. Whip up chopped olives, garlic and a little tomato paste in the blender. You could even add some heart-healthy anchovies to take the flavor over the top!

Seafood

Fish fat naturally contains heart-healthy omega-3s, but most of us simply don’t eat it as often as we should – that is, a couple of times a week. Here are a few practical tips on getting more seafood into your diet:

  • Canned tuna and salmon are super convenient. Flake some tuna or salmon on top of a green salad for a quick meal.
  • Frozen cooked shrimp and scallops are easily added to soups or pasta dishes.
  • Try using fish instead of chicken in some of your favorite dishes like tacos or one-dish meals.
  • Order fish more often when you eat in restaurants.

Avocado

An avocado is technically a fruit and a good source of monounsaturated fat. Here are a few of my favorite uses for avocado:

  • Use mashed avocado as a substitute for mayonnaise in tuna salad or egg salad.
  • Mash into guacamole with a little lime juice and salt, but use cut veggies rather than chips for dipping.
  • Avocado pairs really well with eggs. Try a few slices in an omelet or on top of hard-boiled eggs.
  • Mix diced avocado, mango and red onion with a little lime juice and cilantro into a delicious salsa for grilled fish or chicken.

Yes, you can have fats in a healthy diet, but only if they’re the right ones. Healthy fats from foods like fish, nuts, seeds, olives and olive oils and avocados can help provide your body with the essential nutrition you need, but remember to watch those calories. Even though they’re healthy fats, the calories can add up.