The Skinny on Unsaturated Fats: Why You Need Them + the Best Sources
Here’s what you should know about unsaturated fat, the best sources and how to incorporate the right amount into your diet.
Ready to turn your world upside down? Fat is not only good for you — it’s essential to a healthy diet.
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“We need fat for insulation and protection,” says registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD. “Our cell walls are surrounded by certain forms of fat, and fat helps us absorb certain vitamins.”
But not just any type of fat will do. “Fat that comes from plants, known as unsaturated fats, is better for you than fat from animals,” she explains.
Research shows that eating these essential macronutrients helps stave off disease and leads to longer lifespans.
There are three kinds of fat:
A hack to tell if you’re consuming the best kind of fat? Most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats are either:
These plant-based fats come from sources that include:
Polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs, come in two varieties:
Research connects consuming unsaturated fats with a slew of health benefits, including a lower risk for early death and cardiovascular disease. Omegas-3s specifically may be good for heart health and lowering inflammation.
“Lowering inflammation can help several chronic diseases, whether it’s arthritis, diabetes or any autoimmune disease with inflammation,” Patton adds. “Research connects omega-3 fats with positive impacts on brain health, too.”
Unsaturated fats also help you absorb certain vitamins, such as A, D, E and K.
When eating fat, it can be easy to go from just enough to way too much. Here are Patton’s suggestions for how to make unsaturated fats a healthy addition to your diet:
Experts recommend getting 20% to 35% of your total daily calories from fat. Patton says saturated fats should be no more than 10% of that total. “The other 15% to 20% should be unsaturated fats.”
“Have a little fat with all your meals, especially if you are trying to manage your weight,” says Patton. “Fats can also help you feel full when you add some oil, nuts or avocado to a meal.”
Simple food swaps can have big health impacts. Try:
Fats are calorie-dense. One gram of fat equals 9 calories. Compare that with carbohydrates and protein, which clock in at 4 calories per gram.
“Just 1 teaspoon of oil has about 50 calories, and four walnuts have the same. So eat them in much smaller portions than the carbs or protein you eat,” she suggests. “Even though fats are healthy, if you regularly eat a whole cup of nuts — which is around 800 calories — it can lead to excess weight.”
“Extra virgin means it comes from the very first pressing of the olives. That translates into a lot of antioxidants and health benefits,” says Patton. “But don’t cook with extra virgin olive oil, because the high heat kills the benefits of those antioxidants. Instead, use extra virgin oil as a salad dressing, dip or drizzle. “
Use olive oils from later pressings (plain olive oil or virgin olive oil) for cooking at low to moderate heat.