Confused about what fats are best for you? Instead of thinking good vs. bad, a simpler approach is healthy fat vs. available fats. It will change how you eat, and your diet will thank you.
Certain diet statements should be taken with a grain of salt. This isn’t one of those statements: Eating a lot of fat isn’t for everyone.
Let that statement settle for a moment. It might be difficult for you to read. Especially after all of the research that has suggested, “fat doesn’t make you fat.”
Just because you can go high-fat and lose weight doesn’t mean it’s great for your general health.
That statement is still true — up to a point. The role of any macronutrient in your diet — whether protein, carbs, or fats — all walk a delicate balance between being good for weight loss and being good for your general health.
In the case of fat — or more appropriately, “healthy fat” — that balance has been lost. Some research has twisted an important fact (you need to eat fat in your diet) with a twisted version of reality (eat lots of healthy fat, from many different sources, and you’ll lose fat and never have health issues).
The reality: there’s a very simple way to know if you should be eating more or less fat in your diet (more on that in a moment). More importantly, many foods that have been recommended as a “healthy fat” aren’t actually that healthy.
So where does that leave you? Let’s start with a few essential facts about your diet.
If you prioritize calories and protein, then the amount of fat or carbohydrates you eat is a secondary concern. That’s based on the latest research shows, which shows calories are still king when it comes to weight loss.
In other words, figure out how many calories you need, prioritize protein (usually somewhere between .7g – 1g per pound of your goal body weight — although it can be less for some diets, such as if you follow a ketogenic plan), and then fill in the rest with carbs or fats. This is why research shows that both low-fat and low-carb diets help with weight loss. Because both can.
But, where does that leave you when it comes to eating healthy fat? In most cases, you’re probably still confused about what you should eat.
Should you load up on nuts? What about coconut oil, olive oil, and butter?
Just because you can go high-fat and lose weight doesn’t mean it’s great for your general health. After all, we have professors following Twinkie diets and losing nearly 30 pounds.
To understand the “healthy fat” debate, you need to hit refresh on the extremes (“Fat is bad!” “Fat is amazing!”) and take a different perspective. Not only will this new approach give you peace of mind, it’ll also help you understand what you can eat often, what is OK in moderate doses, and what you should completely avoid.
What is a Healthy Fat?
The thing about the term “healthy” is that everything is relative. The answer will differ from person to person and depend on context.
For example, take the question of whether or not coconut oil is healthy. Start with the baseline: Healthy compared to what?
If the question is coconut oil vs. nothing – i.e. the alternative is starving – then yes, by all means, coconut oil is the better choice.
But if the question is coconut oil vs. another fat source, then you have a debate—one that will have different outcomes depending on the opponent. That’s because some fats are more beneficial than others.
For example, the PREDIMED study, which followed thousands of people over several years, showed that olive oil and nuts were linked with better overall cardiovascular health. By definition, both would be considered a healthy fat.
“That was a landmark study because it showed hard events,” says Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a physician and online health coach based in North Carolina. “Not just some little experimental data showing mechanistic changes in sensitivity, cholesterol or endothelium function. So, at the very least, you can say that olive oil and nuts are probably pretty healthy.”
Nadolsky says the same is true for avocados (and avocado oil), fish, and nut butter. They contain beneficial health properties over and above the presence of fat.
“Olive oil has polyphenols in it and cardioprotective properties, and so do nuts,” Nadolsky says. “We have data on olive oil, nuts, fish oil and omega 3s.” So those fats are, in that sense, “good” for you.
So what are you to make of other supposed healthy fat sources like coconut oil?
The Coconut Oil Debate (And What it Teaches You About “Healthy Fat”)
The recent controversy about coconut oil started with small studies showing some benefits, which were then taken out of context.
One study kinda-sorta suggested that coconut oil might inhibit the growth of certain bacteria.
Media translation: “Coconut oil is antimicrobial! Use it to clean your bathroom!” (<-Not true. Don’t do that.)
Another study showed that men who ate more medium chain triglycerides, a type of fat present in coconut oil, lost a whopping one pound more than those who followed a “regular diet” over a 28-day period.
Media translation: “Coconut oil will make you skinny! Put a shovel of it in your coffee!” (<-Listen, you can do this if you want. But don’t expect anything special to happen.)
You get the idea. The nutrition industry consistently exhibits “irrational exuberance” about the benefits of certain foods. Combine that with a marketing hype and a little myth, and before you know it, you have a “superfood.”
In coconut oil’s case, the superfood train had well left the station in many people’s minds. And it was picking up steam until the American Heart Association released a report advising against the consumption of coconut oil. Suddenly, EEEERT!
The onslaught of ominous headlines denouncing coconut oil was immediate and ubiquitous. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that says if a food isn’t good, it must be bad. That’s freaking out about a food’s supposed risks.
By and large, no single food is going to make or break your diet. You’ve been taught to view foods as “good” or “bad,” but that’s a gross oversimplification.
The biggest concern cited in the AHA report is that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. But anyone who’s even casually glanced at a coconut oil nutrition facts label would know that—it’s stated right there. And while saturated fat has been blamed wrongly for a lot of health problems, it’s also not something you can in any quantity.
So what’s your move? Start with a better understanding of saturated fat.
“There are all sorts of different types of saturated fatty acids. It’s not just one molecule. Just as there are multiple polyunsaturated fatty acids—omega 3s, omega 6s, and so on—there are multiple types of saturated fatty acids, and they all have different effects of the body in the body,” says Nadolsky.
So saturated fat on its own isn’t a problem. Neither is cholesterol, necessarily. Whether or not a problem arises depends on the condition of your body—and especially your arterial walls—and how many lipoproteins you have in your system.
“How does atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of the arteries) actually happen?” Nadolsky asks. “Think of your arteries as a canal, the lipoproteins as boats, and cholesterol as those boats’ cargo. The more lipoproteins you have, the greater of a risk you run that the boats will go crashing into the canal’s walls. And when that happens, it causes the beginning of atherosclerosis or plaque build-up.”
Even if you don’t have a lot of “cargo” (cholesterol), you can still run into trouble if your canals are full of boats (lipoproteins).
So if you really want to know how much saturated fat you can have, go see a doctor and test your lipoprotein levels (apoB/LDL-P).
This will indicate how much eating saturated fat affects your body. Yes, that requires a visit to the doctor. But it’s worth it. And a lot better than playing a guessing game.
Healthy Fat vs. Available Fat (The A-Ha! Moment)
But what about this “MCT” everybody talks about when they discuss coconut oil? These are the “medium chain triglycerides,” which people tout as a fat-burner because of the way the fat is broken down in your body.
To be clear: MCT can have health benefits as a healthy oil, but its reported benefits of melting fat from your body are significantly overstated. As we mentioned, when you look at the data from the study that is used as evidence of MCT’s fat burning power, it shows that MCT oil led to just one pound of additional fat loss.
Second, the oil used in that study had a far greater concentration of MCT than what you’ll find in coconut oil. When researchers examined whether coconut oil had the same effect, they found that it did not affect fat oxidation in the same way. Bottom line: If you want to burn money (MCT ain’t cheap) for an extra pound, that’s your choice.
As nutrition researcher Alan Aragon pointed out in his research review, a curious detail about the studies cited in the recommendation is that some of the most damning studies of coconut oil used a hydrogenated version of the stuff. That’s an important point because hydrogenated anything isn’t healthy for you. “Hydrogenation of vegetable oil is a well-established way to [turn] a relatively neutral oil into a threat to cardiovascular health,” Aragon writes.
But it’s pretty easy to avoid this problem: Simply buy the extra virgin version of any oil you buy, coconut oil included. (If you to stop reading this article right now, that’s a tip that will provide some insurance to upgrade your shopping behavior.)
So where are we left? Is Coconut oil good for you? Is it bad for you? The answer is: It’s neither.
“You will not receive any magical benefits from eating coconut oil,” Nadolsky says. “Coconut oil is not going to kill you, either, so long as you’re not eating gobs and gobs of it.”
That answer holds true for a lot of other fat sources, too. Most of them are what they are: a source of fat, the most calorie-dense of all macronutrients. (Proteins and carbs have four calories per gram, while the same unit of fat packs nine calories.) They can be helpful for greasing pans when you’re making eggs or pancakes. And it’s fine to consume them within moderation.
Fat is an essential nutrient. Your body requires it in order to survive. “Butter and coconut oil are not ‘bad’ for you,” Nadolsky says. “They are perfectly acceptable fat sources. But you shouldn’t go out of your way to eat more of them. There’s no proven benefit to doing so—and there are some documented risks.”
There are really only two fats you should avoid all the time: Trans fats (but you already knew that), and nuts — if you have an allergy (you knew that too).
For nearly everything else—butter, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, and so on—you can feel free to eat them within moderation, and without guilt. These are the “available” fats. You’re not bringing your body one step closer to death by eating them. You’re also not doing it any big favors. You’re simply supplying it with an essential macronutrient.
Are there “better” or “healthier” sources of fat? Yes.
Olive oil, nuts, and seeds contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats with demonstrated health benefits that have held up in studies. But that doesn’t mean you need to only eat them.
You should also know that simply adding a “healthy” fat source to an otherwise crappy diet (one that’s high in calorie-dense packaged foods and low in fruits, vegetables and whole foods) will not make you healthier. In fact, it could make you less healthy if the additional calories you pile on to that crappy diet take you over your daily caloric intake, and lead to fat gain.
“If you do it in the extreme, you could see extreme changes,” Nadolsky says. “And not in a good way.”
The Quick Guide to Healthy Fat (AKA What You Should Eat)