The Skinny on Unsaturated Fats: Why You Need Them + the Best Sources

5 ways to incorporate them into your diet
Good fats with a healthy salad

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.

The skinny on fat

There are three kinds of fat:

  • Saturated fats: Saturated fats have been associated with raised cholesterol and an increase in inflammation in your body.
  • Trans fats: These mostly artificial fats are always a bad call. Found in many processed foods, they can raise bad cholesterol levels and lower levels of good cholesterol. They’re also associated with heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Unsaturated fats: Eat these, and you’ve hit the fat jackpot.They come from plant-based sources and fatty fish. “These fats have a lot of heart benefits,” says Patton.

A hack to tell if you’re consuming the best kind of fat? Most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.

Examples of unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are either:

Monounsaturated fats

These plant-based fats come from sources that include:

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  • Olives and olive oil.
  • Avocados.
  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs, come in two varieties:

  • Omega-3: These fats have heart health benefits. Good sources include tuna, salmon, flax seeds, walnuts and chia seeds.
  • Omega-6: Canola and soybean oils can be good for you — but in the right amounts. “Omega-6s are added to many processed foods, such as chips and baked goods,” Patton cautions. “And the American diet includes a lot of processed foods, which can lead to an imbalance of omega-6s to omega-3s in the body. This imbalance can have negative health effects and cause more inflammation.”

The benefits of consuming unsaturated fat foods

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.

A guide to incorporating unsaturated fats into your diet

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:

1. Set a fat goal

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.”

2. A little dab will do ya

“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.”

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 3. Swap and experiment

Simple food swaps can have big health impacts. Try:

  • Oil and vinegar-based dressing instead of ranch or Caesar.
  • Hummus or avocado instead of mayonnaise.
  • Peanut or almond butter on toast instead of butter.
  • Nuts, seeds, olives and avocado on your salad instead of bacon, cheese and eggs.

4. Go small … or go home

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.”

5. Your olive oil selection matters

“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.

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