(illustrations by Katie Ebert)
Thanks to new and emerging research, we now know that eating healthy fat doesn’t necessarily lead to weight gain. Although fat is caloric (it contains 9 calories per gram, more than double that of proteins and carbohydrates), this macronutrient boosts your satiety—meaning you stay fuller for longer.
While monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (think liquid-at-room-temperature fats, such as olive oil) are hailed as your best fat choices, the research on the health impact of saturated fats, such as butter, animal fats and tropical oils, is less clear. “We have been following guidance to reduce animal fats in the diet since the 1960s, but unfortunately, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes rates have risen steadily,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Eating in Color (Abrams, 2014), who adds that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines actually removed a limit on total fat recommendations.
[Read also: Free guide to healthy fats]
Still, because we don’t have evidence that Americans have actually been eating less fat since the 1960s, it would be incorrect to associate the rise in these chronic diseases with a decline in fat intake. “There are researchers on both sides of the fence who are passionate about fats—some think saturated fats are linked to cardiovascular disease and others think that saturated fats may even play a role in preventing heart disease,” says Largeman-Roth.
Recently, consumers’ fear of eating saturated fat has lessened. Low-carb diets including Paleo, Bulletproof and ketogenic espouse saturated fat’s nutrients (such as brain-healthy medium-chain triglycerides [MCTs])—and increasingly more brands offer products that tout fat content, rather than hide it. But the lion’s share of nutritionists and doctors still recommend limiting saturated fat.
There’s no arguing the research about the health benefits of unsaturated fats, however. And the food sources of these fats (avocado, nuts, olives and essential fatty acids such as omega-3s found in fatty fish, for example) often come with the added benefits of other nutrients, such as fiber, minerals and protein.
The general consensus: There’s no excuse to shy away from unsaturated fats; meanwhile, watch your saturated fat intake and never consume trans fats. To help navigate the "fat" world, here’s your guide to finding better-for-you fats in every section of the grocery store.