Avoiding Fat? 7 Reasons You Shouldn't

Boost your memory, lower your cholesterol levels and so much more.

Medically reviewed in August 2019

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In the wake of diets that promote eating little to no fat, this essential nutrient has gotten a bad rap. Of course, not all fats are created equal, and it's best to stay away from the unhealthy kinds, like saturated and trans fats. The healthy kinds, however, deserve a place at the dinner table.

Our bodies rely on certain types of healthy fats to function well, and knowing which to choose can make all the difference. Saturated fats found in foods like fatty beef, pork and coconut oil are linked to high cholesterol, stroke and heart disease. These bad-for-you fats should make up no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories.

Trans fats, sometimes found in foods like margarine, microwave popcorn and the partially hydrogenated oil used to fry foods, can raise bad cholesterol levels, lower levels of healthy cholesterol and up your risk for type 2 diabetes. These fats have been phased out of US foods, and should be avoided. Instead, load your plate with unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in plant products like nuts, olives and seeds, and in fish like salmon.

Both polyunsaturated fats (like omega-3 fatty acids) and monounsaturated fats help lower cholesterol levels and boost the health of your heart. Some research suggests monounsaturated fats may help lower rates of heart disease.

Frank Chae, MD, a bariatric surgeon with Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado reveals the most important reasons to eat healthy fat.

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Healthy fat helps lower cholesterol

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American adults. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol, is a leading risk factor. Cholesterol levels are affected by a number of things, including diet, weight, activity, age, gender and heredity. Some factors are beyond your control, but others can be modified to help lower your risk of the condition.

A diet rich in saturated fats has been linked to higher rates of LDL cholesterol. Research suggests that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones can lower your risk of heart disease. It's not as hard as you think. Try swapping one serving of red meat with a piece of fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, trout or herring, each week.

In addition, “unsaturated fats can help lower the bad cholesterol and increase ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Chae. “This helps lower the overall risk of heart disease and stroke.”

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Unsaturated fats regulate hormones

Hormones are chemicals that work to aid your body’s processes, from growth, to sexual function to mood. These chemicals are sensitive, and often affected by age, stress, medical conditions and even your diet. 

When your hormones are out of whack, your body can’t work the way it should. Too much or too little fat in your diet could affect these levels. Excess fat may contribute to higher than normal levels of estrogen—the primary female sex hormone—which research suggests may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

For men, too little dietary fat can negatively impact testosterone levels, research suggests. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for male sex drive and physical characteristics, like bone and muscle mass.

So what’s the right amount of fat? The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming up to 35 percent of total daily calories in the form of healthy fats.

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Fat keeps you fuller, longer

Dr. Chae stresses the importance of moderation when it comes to these foods, and rightfully so. High-fat foods, even healthy ones, are dense with calories. But, when eaten in small portions, healthy fats may help you slim down. Research suggests certain fats may keep you feeling fuller for longer. There are a few reasons for this. Fats trigger hormones in the body that signal you to stop eating. And that’s not all: Some fats are slow to digest, which means your stomach will stay full for an extended period of time. 

If you’re looking to sate hunger or hold yourself over until dinner, snack on a handful of almonds. One small study of 32 healthy women between the ages of 35 and 60 suggests those who snacked on almonds after breakfast reported feeling less hungry than those who didn’t, and consumed fewer calories throughout the day.

Stick to one serving of nuts and other healthy fats, about 23 almonds, walnut halves or one-third of an avocado.

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Monounsaturated fat slows atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, characterized by the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries, can result in heart, kidney or peripheral artery disease. Smokers and people with high cholesterol or high blood pressure are at an elevated risk of developing the condition. Addressing those health problems can lower your risk of atherosclerosis.

Foods high in omega-3s and monounsaturated fats, like avocados, walnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans and canola oil, can help lower cholesterol levels and decrease rates of heart disease.

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Healthy fats boost vitamin absorption

It’s no secret, our bodies need vitamins and minerals to function properly. What our bodies can’t make on their own, we can consume in foods and dietary supplements.

But there’s more to getting some vitamins, like vitamin E, than simply eating a bowl full of spinach. Absorption of vitamin E in the body requires fat. Research suggests vitamin E is better absorbed when taken with a high-fat meal, compared when taken with a lower-fat meal. Vitamin E is important for a healthy immune system; your body’s inability to absorb the vitamin can lead to deficiencies.

Vitamin E isn’t the only vitamin that relies on fat for absorption; vitamins A, D and K do as well. One study suggests dietary fat can up your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D3, a nutrient necessary for bone health and proper lung function.

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Omega-3 fatty acid sharpens your memory

Research suggests that omega-3s, the fatty acids found in fish, can help boost memory and improve cognition. Another study, which involved 1,600 Dutch men and women and was published in Neurology, found those who ate fish regularly scored higher on memory and cognition tests.

The types of fats you consume are important to your brain health. Results from a four-year study of 6,183 older women suggested that consumption of artery-clogging saturated fats can impair cognition and memory.

The American Heart Association recommends consuming at least two servings of fish each week. The Mediterranean Diet, an eating plan endorsed by Dr. Chae, recommends enjoying several servings of fatty fish, like sardines and cod, a week. What else should be part of your eating plan? “A Mediterranean diet consists of lean protein, with healthy fats, vegetables, fruit and nuts with monounsaturated fats,” says Dr. Chae.

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Fatty fish helps fight dementia

Healthy fats have even more brain-boosting benefits. Research suggests consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly a component called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive condition that affects mental function, including language and memory. DHA is found in fatty fish like mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna and salmon.

Results from one study of 5,386 people aged 55 and older suggest that those who consumed more fish were 70 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and 60 percent less likely to develop dementia over a two-year period.

Another study of almost 15,000 people found that those who consumed the largest amounts of fish were the least likely to develop dementia, a condition that affects around 47 million people worldwide.

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Healthy Ways to Add Fat to Your Diet

We know our bodies need healthy fats to thrive, but drizzling a tablespoon of olive oil on a bed of greens or grilling up a bland salmon filet every day can be boring. Fortunately, there are flavorful ways to enjoy your daily dose of healthy fats.

  • Toss a tablespoon of chopped walnuts into your lunchtime salad
  • Top your morning eggs with a slice of ripe avocado
  • Sprinkle a tablespoon of chia seeds atop non-fat plain Greek yogurt
  • Spice up your morning with maple walnut flaxseed pancakes
  • Impress your family with this oven-roasted salmon recipe
  • Blend chia or hemp seeds into your favorite smoothie

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