What are healthy fats to eat?

A woman eating high-calorie meal that contains unhealthy fat

You often hear people say you should avoid fatty foods and high cholesterol foods as they tend to cause obesity and cardiovascular diseases. However, some fat-containing foods are beneficial to health.

You might have the question, "what are healthy fats or which foods are healthy fats?"

Healthy fats are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Examples of healthy fat foods to eat include fatty fish, avocadoes, seeds and nuts, olive oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds and yoghurt.

Here, we would talk about these fats that are good for you and the types of fats you should avoid as well as some examples of foods that contain healthy fats.

Follow through to avoid mixing things up. Do not follow the bandwagon of people that do not know the difference between the 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' fats; thus, they avoid all fatty foods.

Let's start by talking about dietary fats in general.

What are dietary fats?

Fat is a nutrient type, just like carbohydrates and proteins. Your body needs fat for some reasons.

It needs fat to generate energy, and it needs it to protect your heart and brain health. Your body also needs fats for the absorption of vitamins.

Dietary fats are fats we obtained from dietary sources; fat and oil that occurs naturally in plant and animal foods.

For many years, we have been told that eating foods that contain fat can cause more bad than good on the health and general well being of individuals.

Consuming fatty foods have been linked with an increase in cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, stroke, heart diseases, increase in waistline and obesity.

But, now, we know better that it is not all fats that wreak such damage. The bad fats are the culprits here. With this, we classify dietary fats into:

  • Trans fats
  • Unsaturated fats
  • Saturated fats

Unsaturated fats are the good fats while trans fat and saturated fats are bad for you and should be avoided or at least limited by all means.

Cutting out unhealthy fats is one of the effective ways to avoid obesity or excessive weight gain.

Saturated fat vs unsaturated fat

You might be wondering what makes saturated fat different from unsaturated fat. But, both are dietary fats, right? Yes, they are both fats, but they are different. While unsaturated fat is good for you, saturated fat is unhealthy.

The chemical difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat lies simply in the number of double bonds in the fatty acid chain.

Okay, it seems we are about to delve into some biochemical jargon, but we won't go deep into it for the sake of comprehension.

Let's simplify this for everyone by taking it one after the other.

What is saturated fat?

As earlier stated, the difference between saturated fats and unsaturated fats lies in the number of double bonds in their fatty chains.

Saturated fats are fats that do not have double bonds between the individual carbon atoms that make up the fatty acid chain.


Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and are mostly from animal sources.

Some common sources of saturated fats include:

  • Fatty meat from lamb and beef
  • Pork products
  • dairy products such as cheese, whole milk, butter, cream etc.
  • Palm oil and coconut oil

Burger and fried foods are unhealthy fatty foods because they contain saturated fat

Studies have shown that consuming saturated fats can increase blood lipids (including LDL cholesterol level) and predispose other heart disease risk factors.

What is unsaturated fat?

Unlike the saturated fats which are densely packed with no double bonds between the fatty acids, unsaturated fats are loosely packed with at least one double bond in the fatty acid chain.


Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and are usually from plant sources.

It is advised that people consume more unsaturated fat while limiting the intake of saturated fats.

There are two main types of unsaturated fat:

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, but when cooled, they start to harden. If you are looking at it from a chemical point of view, they are fat molecules with one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule (i.e. a double bond).

Monounsaturated fats are good for your health, especially when eaten in moderation. They provide the needed nutrients for the development and maintenance of your body's cells.

Studies have also shown that monounsaturated fats can help lower the level of low-density lipoproteins in your blood, reducing your risk of developing stroke and heart diseases.

Now, you might wonder which foods contain monounsaturated fats?

Examples of foods that contain monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Avocadoes
  • Peanut butter

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. Polyunsaturated fats are however classified into two:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fats that your body needs but can't produce on its own. You must get these fats from food, and they are quite crucial for the normal functioning of the body cells and systems.

Examples of foods that contain polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Corn oil
  • Soybean
  • Sunflower oil

As the body needs omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for brain function and cell growth but can't produce them on its own, you have to source them from your food.

Here are some examples of foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Walnuts
  • Pine nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Flax
  • Fish like salmon, Herring, sardines, mackerel, trout and shrimp


While fish contains a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids, they do not produce this fat on their own. Rather, they accumulate them by eating algae and plankton.

Omega-6 fatty acids are usually found in abundance in plant-based oils. Well, except for palm oil and coconut oil which contain a high amount of saturated fats.

Examples of foods or oils that contain omega-6 fatty acids in high amounts include:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Sunflower oil

Also, some oil-based products, such as margarine and mayonnaise, might contain high amounts of omega-6 unsaturated fats.

What are trans fats?

Recall that when we listed out the types of dietary fats, we mentioned three types- saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats.

Now, what are trans fats?

Trans fats (also called trans-fatty acids) are a form of unsaturated fat. They come in both artificial and natural forms.

You will find natural trans fat in dairy and meat from ruminant animals lie goats, cattle and sheep as they form naturally when these animals digest grass.

However, in the case of artificial trans fats (also called partially hydrogenated fats or industrial trans fats), you will find them in vegetable oils.

The artificial trans fats, as found in vegetable oils, are altered chemically to stay solid at room temperature. This is done in order to extend their shelf-life.

Note that:

Natural trans fats as found in animal products are not really considered harmful.

Artificial trans fats are basically hydrogenated vegetable oils and have been indicated to cause serious health damages.

Artificial trans fats have a high tendency to increase LDL bad cholesterol and increase the risk of heart diseases.

Unlike other dietary fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), trans fats mean double trouble for your heart health. In fact, trans fats are considered the worst type of fat you can eat.

For people who want to lose weight, one of the things to do to get started on your weight loss journey is to rid your kitchen of unhealthy foods like trans fats.

Examples of foods that contain trans fats which you should avoid include:

  • Fried fast foods
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils
  • Some margarine (margarine made with hydrogenated oils)
  • Bakery products such as pastries, cakes, doughnuts muffins
  • Non-dairy coffee creamers (coffee whiteners)
  • Potato and corn chips
  • Sweet pies, meat pies and sausage rolls
  • Pizza

What are the health benefits of unsaturated fats?

Eating unsaturated fatty foods is one way of eating healthy

Fats are an essential part of our dietary constituents and are necessary for good health. Knowing now that there different types of fat, it is important that avoid those fats that are bad for you (trans fat and saturated fats).

Some health benefits of unsaturated fats are:

  • Unsaturated fats help lower levels of LDL cholesterol (which is the bad cholesterol)
  • Healthy fat helps build cell membranes in the body.
  • Unsaturated fats might help reduce inflammation.
  • They may also help reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Also, note that even healthy fats can contribute to weight gain if consumed in excess amount than the energy you give out in physical activity. Thus, it would be best if you also ate them in moderation.

Polyunsaturated fats are useful in building cell membranes and the formation of nerve coverings.

The healthy fats are needed for muscle movement, blood clotting and inflammation. Consuming unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats reduces harmful LDL cholesterol, thus, increasing cholesterol profile.

Omega-3 fatty acids may also help prevent and treat stroke and cardiovascular diseases. Some studies have also linked omega-3 fatty acids to improve other health conditions like dementia.

What foods are healthy fats?

So, now that we have touched every important thing about dietary fat, we are back to the initial question, "what foods are healthy fats?"

Healthy fats are simply unsaturated fats which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Examples of fatty foods that are healthy for consumption include:

  • Avocadoes
  • Olive oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Sunflower and safflower oils
  • Seeds and nuts like cashews and almonds
  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Oily fish
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Flax etc.