For years, you’ve heard that fat is bad. It causes heart disease. It makes you fat. Too much will give you a stroke! But your brain is 60 percent fat. Fat helps you feel fuller and eat less over time, and it’s crucial to building cells and protecting your organs. In fact, nutrition science is beginning to turn on its head the idea that all fat is bad for you, with high-profile nutritionists like Walter Willett, Dr.P.H., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, working to debunk the idea that low-fat diets are healthier. Many of the recommendations that we all follow regarding fat, he’s found, are based on rather weak science that has been repeatedly questioned over the decades. Even saturated fat, research is finding, increases HDL (good) cholesterol, which helps remove plaque from your artery walls and decreases your risk of heart disease.
But it’s all about quality. There are some fats that you should avoid, namely manmade trans fats and omega-6-heavy polyunsaturated fatty acids that are abundant in vegetable oils, like corn and soy, abundant in the modern Western diet and guilty of increasing your risk of heart disease.
So don’t ban fat. Ban bad fats. These six healthy fats provide you with nutrients you need, though they’ve been wrongly demonized over the years. As a general rule, whatever kinds of fat you buy, purchase certified-organic plant oils and pastured or grass-fed animal fats to minimize your exposure to pesticide and antibiotic residues.
1. Olive Oil
There’s seemingly no end to the health benefits of olive oil. It’s good for your heart and high in healthy monounsaturated fats, and it just tastes good. But the healthiest high-quality, extra-virgin olive oils don’t handle heat well, so reserve them for salad dressings, says Trevor Holly Cates, N.D., a naturopathic physician with a practice in the Golden Door Spa at the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Lower-quality refined olive oils that can withstand high heats (sometimes labeled “pure” or “extra light”) have been heavily processed using heat and chemicals, and contain as much as three times less of the polyphenols and antioxidants that make extra-virgin olive oil so healthy.
Learn more: 4 Oils that Belong in Every Kitchen
Yes, butter contains a high amount of saturated fat. About 50 percent of the fat contained in this maligned staple is saturated. But, says cardiologist Drew Ramsey, M.D., coauthor of The Happiness Diet (Rodale, 2010), “the good thing about saturated fats is that they’re less reactive,” meaning they don’t oxidize when subjected to high heats the way many vegetable oils do. Oxidation of fats can lead to a buildup of LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease. In addition, butter is rich in vitamin A and helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins in other foods. Just don’t go crazy; stick with a few teaspoons of butter when you sauté your vegetables. “A little goes a long way,” says Dr. Ramsey.
Learn more: Homemade Butter is Easy!
Also known as Indian clarified butter or drawn butter, ghee is butter that has been melted over a low temperature so that all the water content has boiled away and the milk fats have been skimmed off. What remains is a nutty, intensely flavored fat that has the same levels of saturated fat as butter but is even more nutritious. The process of creating ghee concentrates the conjugated linoleic acid—a healthy cancer-fighter that also prevents atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)—found in the butter. And when you go grass-fed for either ghee or butter, you get an extra dose of omega-3s from the grass on which dairy cattle feast.
Go Deep: Learn to make your own ghee
Photo: (cc) Cara Faus/Flickr
The prime example of fats we all thought were bad for us, lard (rendered pork fat) may have been wrongly demonized for years. The main fat in lard—oleic acid—is a monounsaturated fat linked to decreased risk of depression, says Dr. Ramsey. Those same monounsaturated fats, which make up 45 percent of the fat in lard, are responsible for lowering LDL levels while leaving HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels alone. Lard’s saturated fat content is just 35 percent, with polyunsaturated fats making up the balance. It also tolerates high cooking temperatures and is a great substitute for vegetable shortenings, which contain unhealthy trans fats, in baking. “I only have three oils in my kitchen: olive oil, butter, and lard,” says Dr. Ramsey.
Photo: (cc)Josh Larios/Flickr
5. Duck Fat
Like lard, duck fat is high in monounsaturated fats, which make up 50 percent of its total fat content, with saturated fat making up just 14 percent (less than butter). Most of that fat is healthy linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that keeps cells healthy, boosts calcium absorption, and aids in kidney function. Though it’s still used mostly in high-end restaurants, it’s showing up on specialty food store shelves and even some bigger retailers, such as Williams-Sonoma. It can tolerate high cooking temperatures and has a long shelf life, but, like ghee, it has an intense flavor, so it’s not a great all-purpose fat (and, considering the prices it goes for, you wouldn’t want to use it every day, anyway!).
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6. Coconut Oil
As with the other fats here, coconut oil’s high saturated fat content (92 percent) has earned it an undeserved bad reputation over the years. “But there are a lot of health benefits that go beyond just what kind of fat it is,” says Cates. For instance, coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a nutrient our bodies need to help our immune systems. One of the only other major dietary sources for lauric acid is breast milk. Coconut oils are very common now in regular and specialty grocery stores, so keep an eye out for them.
Keep Reading: 11 Foods That Make You Smarter