You may often hear from doctors and dietitians alike that you should eat plenty of “healthy fats” in your diet.  Let’s find out what exactly “healthy” means from nutrition Expert Staci Gulbin.

As you scroll through all the different articles online with mixed messages, you may be wondering what those healthy fats really are.

Let’s first ask ourselves a basic question: what is dietary fat?

Dietary fat is the type of fat found in the foods you consume each day.  Dietary fat is needed to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K in the body, which are important in many of your body’s functions.

There are two main types of dietary fats: saturated fats and unsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, are considered one of the “good” fats, while saturated fats such as trans fats are considered “bad” fats. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as fatty meats, eggs, and full-fat dairy products, while unsaturated fats are found in fatty fish as well as plant-based foods such as plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, and avocado.  

Saturated fats have had mixed reviews since some experts believe they are not all that bad for us. This message came from a recent review of studies on saturated and trans fat that found that there was no correlation between saturated fat intake and all-cause mortality. However, as researchers later pointed out, this study even stated in their data findings that due to the low quality of previous studies that were carried out, their conclusions on saturated fat and all-cause mortality were “very low” since they could not indicate what people who ate less saturated fat ate instead.

It’s why the American Heart Association still emphasizes that decades of studies show that saturated fats can raise your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which in turn increases your risk for heart disease.  Saturated fat increases the size of LDL particles in your blood, among other things, in turn, increasing risk of coronary artery disease. By replacing the saturated fat in your diet with polyunsaturated fats such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, you can lower your risk of heart disease and related conditions.

Where are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats found?

Food sources of Omega-6 fats include:

  • vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn oil, and soybean oil
  • processed food products, fried foods, and sugary baked goods made with vegetable oils
  • nuts and seeds such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, safflower seeds, and sunflower seeds
  • proteins such as pork, beef, and chicken
  • full-fat dairy products such as butter

For example, the Western diet, which is high in red meat, saturated fats, and processed food products, contains a high ratio of Omega-6 compared to Omega-3.

Food sources of Omega-3 fats include:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines
  • Plant-based oils such as flaxseed oil and olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds
  • Grass-fed beef and enriched eggs
  • Vegetables such as soybeans and spinach

The Mediterranean diet, which focuses on limiting red meat and consuming mostly plant-based fats, contains a higher ratio of plant-based Omega-3 fats.

So which “good” fat is best?

Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats that are essential, which means they cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through the foods you eat.  Both types of fat are needed for brain function as well as overall growth and development.  Omega-6 fats have also been shown to help maintain bone, skin, hair, and reproductive growth. The controversy between the two fats comes in the factor of inflammation.

What does the research say?

Omega-3 has been found to decrease inflammation in the body, which can in turn reduce chronic disease risk, while higher consumption of Omega-6 fats have been linked to inflammation in the body.  The current ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is estimated to be around 16:1, far from the recommended ratio of 1:1 to 2:1, which along with regular exercise has been found to decrease risk of obesity and related chronic disease risk. However, it is important to note that it is not entirely clear whether low consumption of Omega-3 or increased intake of Omega-6 is what truly impacts disease risk.

Recent research has also found that:

Although much more research is still required to clearly identify which Omega-6 fats pose the most health risk, it is safe to say that adding more Omega-3 fats to your daily diet from plant-based foods and fish is a healthy move in the right direction.

Other sources:

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, LDN is a Portland-based Registered Dietitian with a licensed private practice in Oregon and Maryland. Staci focuses on helping others be confident in the choices they make and to value themselves enough to make healthier decisions, even in moments where family and work life can be overwhelming.