Eating foods rich in healthy fats can protect your heart and help you absorb a host of vitamins.
Fats are a type of nutrient you get from your food. They’re considered a macronutrient, which is a nutrient your body needs in large amounts (carbohydrates and protein are the other two). Fats can give your body the energy it needs to work properly; keep your skin and hair healthy; help you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K; fill your fat cells and insulate your body to help keep you warm; and give your body essential fatty acids needed for brain development, inflammation control, and blood clotting, according to Medline Plus.
But fat comes in many forms, and the type of fat you consume matters.
Unsaturated fat: Liquid at room temperature and generally considered heart-healthy. This type of fat is found in plants like nuts and seeds, as well as in vegetable oils and seafood. On a nutrition label, look for the words “polyunsaturated fats” and “monounsaturated fats.”
Saturated fat: Solid at room temperature and found in animal foods, like meat and butter, as well as coconut and palm oil. This type of fat is often deemed “unhealthy” for your heart, but research is equivocal. “Some sources are actually good for us,” Brianna Elliott, RD, a nutritionist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, told Health.
Trans fat: Liquid fats made solid through a process called hydrogenation. The Food and Drug Administration actually banned this type of fat—found in fried foods, baked goods, and processed snack foods—back in 2018.
“What really matters is where the source of fat is coming from,” said Elliot. The fats found in ultra-processed snack foods and store-bought baked goods can increase bad cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association.2 Meanwhile, fat from more natural food sources like grass-fed beef can be beneficial in small amounts.
So it’s true, not all fat is created equal. But here are some foods that are good sources of those “healthy” fats.
Olive oil is the original healthy fat. A tall body of research finds that it helps lower your risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Researchers also reported in 2016 in the journal Molecules that the various components of olive oil, including oleic acid and secoiridoids, protect your body on the cellular level to slow the aging process.3 “To get the most health benefits, choose extra-virgin olive oil, as it is extracted using natural methods and doesn’t go through as much processing before it reaches your plate,” said Elliott.
You may have heard someone describe fish as “brain food.” That’s because these swimmers are brimming with omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain function, said Elliot. “Your brain is made up of mostly fat, so you need to consume them in order to stay sharp and healthy.”
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 ounces of fish per week to get healthy amounts of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which feed your brain and fight inflammation and chronic disease.4 If you’re concerned about mercury, choose salmon, anchovies, herring, shad, sardines, oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel), according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Avocados do more than provide the keystone ingredient for guac. They may also help lower inflammation, per a 2019 study in Advances in Food Technology and Nutritional Sciences.6 Inflammation is linked to cardiovascular disease. A 2013 study in Nutrition Journal also suggests that avocados, which are rich in fiber, help slow stomach emptying, which keeps you fuller longer and delays the return of hunger.
“You need to consume healthy fats in order for your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K—pair them with a salad so you can reap the benefits of all those veggies,” said Elliot. Another easy way to get a good dose of avocados is with avocado toast, which can work as a complete breakfast, snack, lunch, or even an easy dinner.
For many years the American Dietary Guidelines had a hard limit on daily cholesterol intake, but that restriction was lifted in 2015. Per the American Diabetes Association, for most people, saturated fat (like fatty meats) is the driving force behind high cholesterol, so not eating cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs.
That’s good news since eggs are packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. “Eggs from hens that are raised on pastures or fed omega-3 enriched feed tend to be higher in omega-3s,” said Elliot. A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also found that eating eggs in the morning helped some people feel full and satisfied longer.
Nuts are nature’s perfect portable snack. Each handful packs a powerhouse of nutrients, including amino acids, vitamin E, and unsaturated fatty acids. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that eating nuts lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
When possible, choose nuts that are raw or roasted. Use others that are flavored, such as honied, glazed, or candied, more sparingly.
Those PB&Js your parent put in your lunch bag (and maybe you put in your own kid’s now) are also really good for you. “Peanuts are packed with monounsaturated fats which are [often] associated with a decrease in cholesterol and heart disease,” Keri Gans, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist in New York City, previously told Health.
Other nut butters, such as almond and cashew, are also nutritious. “The healthy fats in nut butters can help to keep you full and satisfied,” said Elliot. To reduce sugar intake, choose nut butters that list nuts as the only ingredients.
This sweet treat, a source of healthy fats, may help protect the heart. Results of a study announced at the American Chemical Society in 2014 showed why. A team of researchers found that when you eat dark chocolate, good gut microbes like Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria feast on it. They grow and ferment it, producing anti-inflammatory compounds that protect your cardiovascular health.
About 60% of the fat in full-fat Greek yogurt is saturated,12 but you may notice about a gram of trans fat on the label. Not to worry: unless you see partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list (which is unlikely), it’s a naturally occurring type of trans fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
“While man-made trans fats are very unhealthy, ruminant trans fats like CLA may help to protect against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” explained Elliot. “To get the most bang for your buck when it comes to yogurt, aim for grass-fed, full-fat yogurt.”
There are also low-fat options available. If sugar is a concern, choose plain yogurt instead of flavored. You can sweeten it up with fresh or frozen fruit.
The oil from these pressed gems steals the health spotlight, but the fruits themselves deserve a prominent position on stage—and on your plate. A 2021 research paper in Antioxidants pointed out that they’re rich in oleic acid, the monounsaturated fatty acid that protects your heart, as well as antioxidant polyphenols, which protect you from cell damage.13 They also contain iron, fiber, and copper.
“Expand your horizons beyond the ripe black olives found on pizzas,” Leslie Bonci, RD, sports nutritionist at Pittsburgh-based company Active Eating Advice, told Health. “Markets have huge olive bars with a wide array of sizes, colors, and textures. Even if you think you don’t like olives, there may be a kind you do, you just haven’t found it yet.”
Just keep in mind that they can be high in sodium. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for those 14 and older.
Seeds are so tiny it’s easy to dismiss them as sprinkles for salads or flavoring for bread. But it’s time to regard these crunchy add-ons as more than a garnish, and as the nutritional powerhouses they are. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, seeds like pumpkin, hemp, flax (grind these in a coffee grinder to release nutrients or purchase ground flaxseed), chia, and sunflower are rich in polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids, which suppress inflammation.
They’re also a good source of protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, iron, and magnesium, per the Department of Agriculture.15 “Pumpkin seeds have been found to be especially helpful for balancing blood sugar,” nutrition scientist Stacy Sims, Ph.D., told Health.
Soybeans are one of the few beans that are rich in protein and a good source of essential fatty acids. So they make a fiber-rich meat substitute. “Soybeans—dried or fresh—are a healthy source of complete protein as well as isoflavones (a form of plant-based estrogen), fiber, and vitamins and minerals,” said Bonci. “That’s also true for soy milk, miso, and tofu.”
That’s not to say veggie corn dogs are a healthy food, however. “Meat analogs like Fakin’ Bacon are primarily soy protein without the other healthful components. So choose whole soy foods for health benefits.”
“Cheese is full of good nutrients like phosphorous, protein, and calcium that people forget about because of the fat issue,” said Sims. “It also increases levels of butyric acid in the body, which has been linked to lower obesity risk and a faster metabolism.”
One of the healthiest ways to get your cheese fix: As a garnish on a salad. It adds flavor to your bowl, and the fat helps you absorb the nutrients in the veggies.