What Are Healthy Fats?

Not all fats are bad...

By Kate Shapland
Image of an open avacado on a table

Understandably, high fat food have had a bad rap over the years, but healthy fats are definitely not something you should be avoiding. Fat is one of the three essential macronutrients the body needs, along with carbohydrates and protein. The body requires a certain amount of healthy fat from your diet to aid hormone function, memory and absorption of specific nutrients. So a balanced diet should include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. 

As well as fighting inflammation in the body, unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are healthy fats because they: 

  • benefit the heart 
  • lower LDL cholesterol 
  • improve insulin levels 
  • improve blood glucose levels 

The two best known PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are essential fats – unsaturated fats – that people must get from the food they eat as the body is unable to make them. In fact, studies have linked omega-3 fats to many health benefits, especially the prevention of heart disease.

As a rule of thumb, healthy fats — like olive oil — are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats and trans fats, on the other hand, are considered unhealthy fats. Foods rich in these substances, such as butter, are often solid at room temperature. Saturated fat has long been thought to have a negative impact on cholesterol levels and heart health, but recent research suggests it’s not as bad as once thought. Even so, most nutritionists still recommend limiting saturated fat in your diet and replacing them with MUFAs and PUFAs. 

Trans fats, found in fried, frozen, baked foods (think pizzas and pies) and margarine, should always be avoided. Artificial trans fats, listed on labels as partially hydrogenated oils, are extremely unhealthy. They trigger inflammation that may increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. 

Even just 2% of calories from trans fats daily can increase the risk of heart disease by 23%.

Image of a bowl of yoghurt with various toppings

So what is unsaturated fat?  The following unsaturated fat examples are all diet staples for different reasons:

1. Avocado

A single avocado typically contains about 29 grams (g) of fat and 322 calorie. It’s high in a monounsaturated fatty acid called oleic acid, which is believed to act as an anti-inflammatory and can prevent against heart disease. Avocados are also high in fibre – brilliant if your system is a bit sluggish. One of the lesser known benefits from avocados is that the fruit contains a substance called lutein, a rich source of potassium which may support eye health. Add avocado to salad or replace less healthful saturated fats, such as mayonnaise and butter, with it to start feeling those benefits.

2. Chia seeds

They may be small in size, but chia seeds pack a punch as they are highly rich in nutrients. An ounce (oz) of seeds contains over 8 grams of fat, much of which is made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are, in fact, one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 you can eat. 

What’s so helpful about omega-3? Well – it can relieve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, lower blood pressure and provides the body with fibre, protein, iron, calcium and anti-ageing antioxidants. Use chia seeds in smoothies, soak them overnight for a ready-made breakfast, or mix them with water to make a delicious vegan egg-replacement in cooking.

3. Dark chocolate

Eating just an ounce of dark chocolate can be enough to stave off sweet cravings, while providing a good amount of healthy fat, as well as other nutrients such as potassium and calcium. Dark chocolate also contains 41mg of magnesium, which is about 13% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adult females.

Dark chocolate is also very rich in flavonoid antioxidants, with one report claiming that cocoa powder contains more antioxidants than blueberry powder. Choose good-quality dark chocolate — at least 70% cocoa — to ensure a high level of flavonoids. 

4. Eggs

Eggs are a popular source of protein, especially for vegetarians. Traditionally, people believed that egg whites were the healthier part of an egg, but the yolk actually contains several important nutrients. A  hard-boiled egg boasts around 5 grams of fat, 1.6 of which are saturated, and just 78 calories. The yolk also contains vitamin D,  choline (a B vitamin that supports the function of the liver, brain, nerves, and muscles) and other phytonutrients, such as lutein. 

While older studies have suggested that eggs increase cholesterol, newer research disputes this. A 2018 study carried out on Chinese adults, for example, reported that up to one egg a day might lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Start the day off with a protein-packed omelette or add a poached egg to a plate of green leafy vegetables.

5. Fatty fish

Fatty fish – and the list includes fresh (not canned) tuna, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout – are packed with unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids that play an important role in heart and brain health. Two servings of oily fish are recommended every week, but avoid high-mercury fish, such as swordfish. Serve grilled tuna or flake warm salmon over a salad. 

6. Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds provide omega-3 fatty acids and a healthful dose of fibre at the same time. A 2-tablespoon serving contains almost 9 grams of fat, which is almost entirely unsaturated, as well as 5.6 grams of fibre. The fibre content can increase the feeling of fullness and may reduce cholesterol. Flaxseeds are also very rich in lignans, a type of plant compound that has estrogen and antioxidant effects. Blend flaxseeds into a smoothie or , sprinkle them on yoghurt or oat bran.

7. Nuts

Nuts have many extraordinary benefits, according to several studies. They are rich in healthful fats, protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytosterols that can prevent cardiovascular conditions. A 5-year study of more than 373,000 people, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, reported that people who eat nuts regularly are less likely to gain weight or become overweight or obese in the longer term. 


There are about 14 grams of fat  in 1 oz of almonds, 19 grams in Brazil nuts, and 18.5 grams in walnuts. Try to eat the unsalted ones and a wide variety, as each nut has a slightly different nutrient profile. Enjoy them as a snack or toss them in salads for a yummy crunch.

8. Nut and seed butter

You can also enjoy the benefits of nuts and seeds in a spreadable form by using nut butter to get a healthy amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Choose a nut butter that is free from added sugar, salt, and oil, and spread it on rice cakes or sliced apples.

9. Olives

A staple of the Mediterranean diet, black olives provide over 6 grams of fat per 100 grams, mainly monounsaturated, along with over 13 grams of fibre. Olives can be high in sodium though so five large or 10 small olives are usually considered a healthy portion. Eat them as a snack or make them into a tapenade.

10. Olive oil

Extra-virgin olive oil is full of monounsaturated fats that are good for heart health. It also contains vitamin E, vitamin K, and potent antioxidants. Use olive oil regularly, but sparingly, in cooking and dressings — a single tablespoon contains 14 grams of fat and 120 calories.

11. Tofu

Tofu is a complete plant protein and a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A 100 gram serving of firm tofu provides just over 4 grams of fat. This amount of tofu also provides one-quarter of a person’s daily calcium intake, along with 11 grams of protein. Replace red meat with tofu in many meals to reduce saturated fat intake. You can also make use of tofu to increase the protein content of vegetarian stir-fries and curries.

12. Yoghurt

Full-fat natural yoghurt contains great probiotic bacteria, which can help to support healthy gut function. Regularly consuming yoghurt may help to manage your weight and improve heart health too. Choose full-fat natural or Greek yoghurt and avoid those that have added sugar. Enjoy yoghurt with nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit for breakfast, a snack or dessert. 


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