Healthy Fats – Benefits, Food Sources, and Omega-3 Supplements
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
When you hear the word fat, what do you think? Does it bring up fear around eating fat or body fat? Does it make you think of macronutrient ratios or keto diets? Or about the types of cooking fats that you use in your kitchen?
The truth is that we must eat fat; it’s essential for life. But there is a lot of fear and confusion around fat.
Today’s article will walk you through what you need to know about fat. We’ll start with diet culture messaging and then dig into the science, food sources, and critical points to understand.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Will eating fat make me fat?
- Benefits of dietary fat
- Types of fat and food sources
- The importance of the omega-6 to 3 ratio
- Tips for choosing healthy fats and optimizing your diet
Let’s get started!
Will Eating Fat Make Me Fat?
Fat gets a bad rap. Fear around dietary fat began in the 1970s, but the low-fat craze really took hold in the 1990s. Today, nutrition recommendations still contain leftover diet culture messages that promote fear around eating fat.
Interestingly, when food products began removing fat (fat-free cookies and fat-free yogurt), fat was replaced with sugar and fillers. After all, the fat makes food taste good and feel good in your mouth; without it, food companies had to try to replicate the flavor and feel with additives. But it didn’t work as planned. Without the fat to make you feel full, you keep eating more and more.
And ironically, during the fat-free decades, Americans became less healthy.
Today, fat is less of a dietary villain in popular culture. Instead, we’ve demonized carbs, which is a topic for another day.
Why You Need Fat – Befits of Dietary Fat
You might be surprised to learn that fat does more than provide fuel and energy storage. Here are some important ways that your body uses the fat you eat:
- Body structure – Fats are the building blocks of cell membranes.
- Cellular communication – Fats are used to send signals between cells.
- Nutrient absorption – Fat-soluble nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K, along with fat-soluble phytonutrients like carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, etc.) need to be eaten with fat for absorption.
- Satiety – Eating fat sends signals to your brain that you’ve eaten enough and it’s time to stop.
- Energy metabolism – Along with protein and carbohydrates, fat is a macronutrient that provides caloric energy.
- Energy storage – Fat is an efficient way to store energy.
- Regulation of body temperature – Body fat keeps you warm and protects your internal organs.
- Healthy skin and hair – The fats that you eat affect your health, inside and out.
Types of Fat and Food Sources
When I say fat, I’m really talking about fatty acids, the distinct molecules that make up triglycerides (how fat is found in food, transported, and stored), phospholipids (found in cell membranes), and other lipid structures.
Fatty acids are categorized based on their chemical structures. We don’t need to dive into the chemistry too much but know that the structure dictates the properties of the fats and their function in the body.
The two main categories of fats are saturated and unsaturated. The carbon chain of saturated fats is “saturated” with hydrogen molecules and don’t contain any double bonds. Because of this structure, saturated fats are solid at room temperature and stable.
Unsaturated fats aren’t “saturated” with hydrogens and contain double bonds. If the fatty acid has one double bond, it’s called monounsaturated; if it has several, it’s polyunsaturated. Unsaturated fats are more fragile and prone to damage (oxidation). They are liquid at room temperature and often referred to as “oil.”
Note that foods and cooking oils contain multiple fatty acids. They are typically categorized by which fatty acid they contain the most. For example, olive oil is over 75% monounsaturated but also contains polyunsaturated and saturated fats.
Saturated fat is the main form of fat found in your body. Your body makes long-chain saturated fat, which are packed tightly to store energy.
You’ll find long-chain saturated fats in animal foods and medium-chain fatty acids in plants. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) from coconut and palm aren’t stored in the body and are a source of readily available energy.
Short-chain saturated fatty acids, such as butyrate, are primarily produced by beneficial bacteria in the gut as they metabolize fiber from plants.
Food sources of saturated fats:
- Butter and ghee
- Full-fat dairy products
- Beef, lamb, bison
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- MCT oil
Many health benefits are attributed to consuming monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in olive oil, avocados, and macadamia nuts. Extra virgin olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, contains oleic acid (the monounsaturated fatty acid), vitamin E, and polyphenols enhancing heart health.
Food sources of monounsaturated fats:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Macadamia nuts
Polyunsaturated Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fats
Both omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated; they have double bonds in different positions, giving them different properties.
The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the diet is vital for health. Because omega-6 fats can be more inflammatory and omega-3 fats more anti-inflammatory, balance is critical. Excess omega-6 fats in the diet contribute to chronic inflammation, obesity, and metabolic disease.
Before the rise in processed foods, humans naturally consumed an omega-6:3 ratio of 1:1, or equal amounts of both types of fats Those eating a standard American diet today consume a ratio closer to 20:1! The main source of omega-6 fats are highly processed industrial seed oils. The American diet also tends to contain fewer omega-3 fats.
Highly processed sources of omega-6 fats:
- Soybean oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable shortening and margarine
Whole food sources of omega-6 fats:
- Pine nuts
- Widespread in nuts and seeds
Food sources of omega-3 fats:
- Chia seeds
- Cold water fish, such as salmon
Some trans fat exists in nature and is beneficial. For example, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is found in grass-fed dairy and meat and may help improve blood sugar balance. However, most trans fat is artificial, and clearly associated with heart disease and all-cause mortality. A lot of trans fat has been removed from processed foods in recent decades, but you’ll still find it in some products containing “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” fats.
Tips for Choosing Healthy Fats
Now that we’ve talked about the different types of fats let’s walk through some action steps you can take today to ensure you are eating the best sources of fat and finding the balance your body needs.
1. Choose whole foods and minimally processed cooking fats. The best options for cooking are extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and butter or gee. Whole foods containing natural, healthy fats include high-quality meat, eggs, dairy, coconuts, olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
2. Avoid trans fats. If you are going to cut something out, this will be the easiest and provide the most benefit. Check labels of margarine, shortening, and similar products for the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list.
3. Reduce (or eliminate) highly processed vegetable oils and the ultra-processed food products that contain them. This step will help reduce excess omega-6 intake and help balance your omega-6 to 3 ratio.
4. Increase omega-3 foods. Shoot for eating cold water fish three times per week. Wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, Alaskan cod, and other low-mercury options are preferable.
5. Take a fish oil supplement to ensure you’re getting enough of these beneficial fats and help balance your omega-6 to 3 ratio. A daily fish oil supplement is useful for most, and especially important for those who don’t eat fish regularly. Of course, please consult with your healthcare provider before beginning new supplements.
Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 is a concentrated fish oil supplement, supplying 2000 mg of EPA and DHA per serving. Unlike other fish oils that come in the ethyl ester form, Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 is in triglyceride form, the form naturally found in fish and other foods, making it easier to digest, absorb, and utilize by the body.
6. Quality matters. When it comes to fats, quality really matters. Many environmental toxins and contaminants are fat-soluble and concentrate in fatty foods. In addition, there isn’t a lot of regulation surrounding the quality of fats found on the supermarket shelf or in supplements. You may have heard consumer reports about extra virgin olive oil containing canola oil or many avocado oil brands being rancid. That’s why it’s essential to know your source and choose products from quality, trusted, and transparent sources.
Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 is free of heavy metals (including mercury), dioxins, PCBs, and other toxins. The company offers transparency about their ingredient sources and manufacturing processes.
When implementing these steps, you don’t have to be perfect or commit to a massive overhaul. Subtle shifts in the diet, such as swapping your cooking oil and taking a quality fish oil supplement, offer cumulative health benefits over time.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.