How to Get More Healthy Fats Into Your Diet

Different kinds of fats help you stay healthy. Find out which foods provide the fats you need.

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Have you pushed aside the butter dish and switched to the tubs of trans-fat-free margarine? Have you kicked lard to the curb, choosing now to brown, sauté and bake with corn or vegetable oil? Many of us are resting easy in the knowledge that as long as we eat mostly the good kinds of fat—meaning unsaturated fats—our hearts are probably in the clear, right?

Not so. Merely switching to unsaturated fats is not the only key to healthful fat consumption. Research shows you need different kinds of unsaturated fats. Here’s the lowdown.

The facts on fats
As with other foods, if you are eating too much fat, regardless of the kind, and you are not expending a similar number of calories, you're risking weight problems and all of the related health complications.

But there are many good things fat can do for you. Dietary fat is a necessary part of maintaining energy levels, and it provides the body with essential fatty acids that it cannot produce on its own. Dietary fats aid in nutrient absorption, make foods more palatable and help you feel sated. They also assist the body in the production of substances that are essential for immune function, tissue repair and prostaglandin production.

Fat is still part of a healthful diet, but it's important to know what kind you are eating. Saturated fats come mostly from animal products like meat and butter; eating too much food that’s high in saturated fat may raise your cholesterol and increase your risk for cardiovascular problems. Unsaturated fats are heart-healthy fats. There are two kinds: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Both can benefit your health. 

Do you know where to find unsaturated fats? Answer this question to find out.

Q: Which snack contains mostly unsaturated fats?

  1. Peanut butter on a banana
  2. A couple of olives
  3. Avocado toast
  4. A handful of walnuts
  5. All of the above

A: All of the above. Nuts, seeds, olives and avocado are low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat. The walnuts are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. Along with omega-6 fatty acids, another kind of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3s play a key role in keeping you healthy.

Your body doesn’t make omega-3 fatty acids. You have to get them from foods like flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Answer this question to find out about another good source of these healthy fats.

Q: You're looking to add a dose of healthy omega-3 fats to your diet today. What should you do?

  1. Drizzle your salad with a dressing made with olive oil
  2. Snack on a serving of popcorn popped in safflower oil
  3. Have a serving of wild salmon at lunch or dinner

A: Have a serving of wild salmon at lunch or dinner. Oily fish from cold-water climates, such as salmon, are typically good sources of omega-3 fats. Safflower oil is rich in omega-6 fats; olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats that also fight disease but contains no omega-3 fats.

Keep in mind that omega-3 levels can vary greatly in fish depending upon where it comes from. It's often difficult to know exactly how much omega-3 fats fish contain, regardless of whether it's wild or farmed. Also, before you choose your fish, find out the typical methylmercury levels for various fish from the FDA.

What is monounsaturated fat?
Monounsaturated fat remains one of your best choices when it comes to including fat in your diet. Where can you get your monounsaturated fat? Try answering this question.

Q: You're sautéing vegetables to eat with your dinner. Which of the following unsaturated fat sources is your best choice?

  1. Canola oil
  2. Olive oil
  3. Sunflower oil
  4. Any of the above

A: Olive oil. Both canola oil and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fat. However, there is less research behind canola oil than there is behind olive oil. Also, the way canola oil is produced creates byproducts that may have negative health impacts, so olive oil remains your best bet.

The right amount of saturated fat
The body needs a small amount of saturated fat for certain physiological functions. Just don't go overboard. Your saturated fat intake should remain below 10 percent of your total daily calories, according the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That means if you consume 2,000 calories per day, no more than 200 of those calories should come from saturated fat. That's about 2 tablespoons of butter. Keep your butter intake light if you consume other foods with saturated fat, such as eggs, red meat, baked goods or whole dairy products such as full-fat cheese.

If you need to cut back on saturated fat or total fat intake, stick to non-fat substitutions for omega-6-rich fats. For example, whole-fruit spread can replace margarine. And whenever you bake, find healthier substitutions for oil and butter, such as fruit purees or yogurt.

The future of fats
Research into the health impacts of dietary fat is ongoing. Someday soon, more pieces of the puzzle may be discovered. For example, additional sources of healthy omega-3s, additional benefits of various dietary fats and new knowledge about the best ways to include fat in the diet may be just down the road. Being adaptable and flexible and staying abreast of the latest research can help you take advantage of the latest scientific findings as they unfold.

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