For anyone dipping their toes into the high-fat diet trend, it can be difficult to identify the right types of fats. After all, going keto isn’t an invitation to chow down on bacon 24/7. Here, we break down which fats to focus on—and which to minimize.
Not All Fats Are Created Equal
Many people who go keto assume all fat is good fat. This type of free-for-all keto diet has come to be known as ‘dirty keto.’
You can technically lose weight eating a dirty keto diet—but if you want to protect your overall health (especially your heart health) long-term, which fats you eat matters.
“When choosing fats on the ketogenic diet, consider fats that are nutrient-dense, meaning they contain additional nutritional benefits beyond simply helping you reach fat and caloric needs,” says Melissa Majumdar, M.S., R.D., C.S.O.W.M., L.D.N., C.P.T., spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“When you focus on getting fats from nutrient-dense foods, you’re more likely to obtain important antioxidants, minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium, omega-3s, probiotics, and so on,” says Joshua Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition, author of Keto Diet, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. Foods high in unsaturated fats (which include monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats), specifically, have been shown to help lower cholesterol and improve brain, immune and heart health. Good sources include olives, nuts and seeds, and avocados.
The Saturated Fat Debate
The impact saturated fat has on our health is not so clear.
“Although we have learned that saturated fat, which has been shunned in the past, may not be as ‘bad’ for us as originally reported, that doesn’t mean that it should become the backbone of our diets,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It—Taking You from Label to Table.
According to Axe, it’s the source of saturated fat—think quality, whole food versus processed food—that truly matters.
“In addition to saturated fats, quality grass-fed meats, for example, provide protein, iron, zinc, and more,” he says.
And though we typically associate saturated fats with animal foods, a few plant foods—including coconut, which also provides fiber and other nutrients—contain them, too. These wholesome sources of saturated fats fit easily into a healthy diet.
Processed saturated fats, though? Not so much. “Processed meats—like bacon and deli cold-cuts are harder to digest, and lack healthy fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.”
Plus, highly-refined vegetable oils (think deep-frying oils) don’t provide the health benefits oils high in monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, offer.
As research continues to develop, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans still recommends limiting saturated fat to about 10 percent of our calories for now. To support long-term health, stay away from processed saturated fats and make sure your diet emphasizes whole foods and plenty of unsaturated fats, too.
Do Organic & Grass-Fed Really Matter?
Whether saturated or unsaturated, the origin of the fats you eat becomes incredibly important on a keto diet. After all, they account for most of your calories!
“It’s worth the investment to purchase high-quality oils, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meats,” Axe says. “They’re typically higher in healthy fats and other nutrients, and less likely to contain fillers, hormones, and antibiotics.”
Studies have shown that the milk from grass-fed cows, for example, is richer in fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.
Butter from grass-fed cows, meanwhile, contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may provide additional health benefits.
Healthy Fats To Load Up On
1. Avocado + Avocado Oil
“With more than 20 vitamins and minerals, avocado is one of the healthiest fats we can eat,” says Taub-Dix. The unique fruit is high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, and more. It also contains lutein, an important nutrient for eye health.
Related: 10 Keto Recipes That Require Zero Cooking
“Just like avocados, avocado oil is also high in monounsaturated fats,” says Majumdar. Plus, not only does avocado oil work well in marinades, salad dressings, and dips, but its high smoke point makes it great for grilling and sautéing.
2. Olives + Olive Oil
The center of the long-revered Mediterranean diet, olives and olive oil also contain those protective monounsaturated fats.
Not to mention, “olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, contains antioxidants that help protect the body from cellular damage,” says Majumadar. (The purest form of olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil is the most-researched for its brain-, heart-, and immune-supporting properties.)
Olive oil is great for sautéing, pan-frying, and roasting—and whole olives make for a great grab-and-go snack.
3. Nuts & Seeds
Not only do nuts and seeds provide a variety of healthy fats, but they’re also a great source of plant protein, vitamins and minerals, and fiber—a sacred nutrient on keto. (A quarter-cup of nuts contains upwards of two grams of fiber.)
Nuts have even been linked to lower risk of heart disease and improved cholesterol levels and brain health.
Majumdar loves snacking on nuts plain, adding them to salads for crunch, and even using them to make ‘breading’ for fish or chicken.
Axe’s favorites? Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseed.
Just watch your serving sizes; to keep carbs from creeping up, stick to a quarter-cup per day.
4. Fatty Fish
You already know that fatty fish—like salmon—is one of our best sources of heart- and brain-loving omega-3 fatty acids. But its benefits don’t end there!
“Recently, studies have linked eating seafood to a healthy mood, even reducing the incidence of depression,” says Taub-Dix. Not to mention, it also provides selenium, iron, B vitamins, and a host of other valuable nutrients.
Majumdar recommends eating eight ounces (two servings) of fish per week. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, and herring are all great options.
Fats To Enjoy In Moderation
1. Butter + Ghee
As fears surrounding saturated fat have somewhat simmered (and rejection of trans fat-containing margarines has spiked), butter has made its way back into many a refrigerator.
Oddly enough, high-saturated-fat butter and ghee have been linked to rises in both good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, says Majumdar.
Related: Signs You’re Eating Too Much Protein On Keto
For now, enjoy butter and ghee in moderation—and go for grass-fed whenever possible to score more fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients, says Axe.
Both butter and ghee add flavor to sauces, vegetables, and eggs—and ghee comes in clutch for pan-frying at higher temperatures.
2. Coconut Oil
Not only is coconut oil a natural beauty unicorn, but it also has a place in a balanced, healthy diet.
“Coconut oil is one of the best dietary sources of medium-chain triglyceride fats (or MCTs), especially lauric acid, out there,” says Axe. (Lauric acid has been shown to support healthy immunity and cognitive function.)
Thing is, “unlike olive oil and avocado oil, coconut oil contains mostly saturated fat,” says Majumdar. (Just one tablespoon contains an entire day’s-worth of saturated fats according to the American Heart Association’s standards.)
While this suggests we enjoy coconut oil in moderation for now, it is certainly worth incorporating. “It’s easy for many people to digest and can help us manage hunger,” says Axe.
“Coconut oil adds unique flavor and works well when sautéing and stir-frying,” says Majumdar. It’s also a great plant-based alternative to butter when baking. (Use plnt brand Organic Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil for everything from frying eggs to making smoothies extra satiating.)
3. MCT Oil
Short for ‘medium-chain triglycerides,’ MCTs are a specific type of fat found in certain plant foods—most notably coconuts. The body can use these unique fats for energy more easily than others, so they’re more likely to give you a boost than become body fat.
MCT oils, which are typically derived from coconut oil, concentrate these fats. Digested easily, MCTs travel to the liver to be used to produce ketones, making them an easy energy source for keto dieters, says Axe.
These typically flavorless oils should be considered supplements, not foods, and are easy to add to smoothies and protein shakes. Flavored options, like Sports Research Corporation’s Creamy Vanilla Emulsified MCT Oil, also work well in coffee.
Just be sure to ease your way into incorporating MCTs, since their speedy digestion can cause some stomach upset at first.
Fats To Watch Out For
1. Trans Fats
Found in the form of partially-hydrogenated oils in all sorts of processed foods, trans fats have been shown to lower good cholesterol (HDL) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL).
No matter what diet style suits your fancy, trans fats are no bueno. Through a process called ‘hydrogenation,’ once-liquid fats are solidified, making them more difficult for the body to break down.
Look out for (and avoid) any ingredients resembling ‘partially-hydrogenated oil,’ including margarine, which is often found in fried foods, baked goods, frozen foods, and spreads.
2. Bacon + Bacon Fat
Delicious as bacon may be, it waves one major red flag: cancer risk.
The World Health Organization identifies bacon and other processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning solid science links them to cancer.
That doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a slice or two on a Sunday morning; just don’t consider bacon an everyday staple. When you do treat yourself, Axe recommends looking for bacon that’s uncured or nitrate-free to keep it as clean as possible.
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