Sometimes, looking at food labels can make our heads spin. Which one is supposed to be good for you — low-fat, non-fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat? Full-on lard? Ugh. Just tell us if we’re allowed to eat butter now or not. If you’re just as confused as we are by all the info on fat you get from random celebrity health advice and crazy fad diets (not to mention how it’s impossible to keep up when the recommendations always seem to be changing), here are some answers.

Selection of healthy fat sources

We talked to Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, a certified nutritionist and nationally known expert on weight loss and health. Bowden — AKA the “The Nutrition Myth Buster” — has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC and CBS, and written for dozens of health magazines and national publications. He also literally wrote the book on fat (Smart Fat: Eat More Fat. Lose More Weight. Get Healthy Now.), so we asked him to set the record straight on fat, and give us some tips on how to healthily incorporate it into our diets.

B+C:Can you explain the concept of “healthy” fats, and why they’re so important?

JB: Fat and protein are the only two macronutrients we can’t live without. Both are essential to our health. We can actually live with zero dietary carbohydrate — we don’t suggest that, but it’s possible. You could not survive with zero fat or zero protein intake.

So healthy fats are basically fats that are not damaged and that don’t contribute to inflammation. It doesn’t matter if they’re saturated or unsaturated, what matters is if they are toxic or clean. Toxic fats come from animals that have been shot full of antibiotics, steroids and hormones and are eating pesticide-laden grains and GMO corn, and from man-made trans fats. Healthy, clean fats come from grass-fed animals that are raised on pasture organically, wild salmon, coconut oil, olive oil and certified Malaysian palm oil, just as a few examples.

They are healthy and important because 1) they are the number one dietary source of energy, and 2) they get incorporated into cell membranes providing both structure/strength and flexibility. Healthy fats like omega-3 are highly anti-inflammatory, while an abundance of vegetable oils contributes to inflammation. Malaysian palm oil, for example, is red because of its high concentration of carotenoids (not to mention tocotrienols, which are protective to the brain). Coconut oil has lauric acid, which is anti-microbial and anti-viral. Olive oil contains important polyphenols.

B+C: What are the signs that you’re not getting enough dietary fat? What are some signs that you might be getting too much?

JB: Brittle hair, nails, low energy, dry skin are the most obvious signs of too little fat. There are no clear signs for “too much fat,” because it would all depend on what else was being eaten, the level of activity the person was engaging in and the quality of the fat itself.

B+C:What are your top food recommendations for sources of healthy fats?

JB: My personal favorites — as cooking oils/ingredients go — are olive oil, Malaysian palm oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and grass-fed butter or ghee. (Of course I also recommend fish oil but that can’t be used for cooking!) And the reason I specifically prefer Malaysian palm oil is because it is certified sustainable — no animal habitats are destroyed in the making of this nutritious oil, unlike what happens in many other countries.

Here are some great food sources for healthy fats:

Avocados: Avocados are high in monosaturated fat (the same fat found in olive oil), anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy.

Grass-fed butter: Grass-fed butter contains CLA, a cancer-fighting fat found only in the meat and fat of grass-fed ruminants.

Grass-fed meat: Ditto. And it’s also high in omega-3.

Wild salmon: A great source of protein, omega-3 AND astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant that comes from krill and gives wild salmon its pink color.

Nuts: All kinds, any kinds, all good! Eat them often!

Full-fat yogurt that contains active cultures: No-fat yogurt is one of the dumbest ideas in nutrition history. Studies show that people who eat full-fat dairy have less risk of diabetes. The likely reason is the palmitoleic acid in the full-fat dairy.

Eggs: I mentioned that no-fat yogurt was one of the dumbest ideas in nutrition history, but even worse was the infamous “egg white omelet.” Sheer insanity. The yolks contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are superstar nutrients for the eyes, a lot of protein and choline, one of the best brain foods in the world. And forget about cholesterol — even the new official recommendations now recognize that dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with anything.

flour eggs butter

B+C: How much of your daily food intake should include healthy fats?

JB: There is absolutely no right answer to this question, even though there is no shortage of people who will answer it (incorrectly). There’s just no perfect percentage of calories from fat, and, as Walter Willet, head of Harvard’s School of Public Health Nutrition Department, has said, the percentage of calories from fat correlates with absolutely NO health outcomes that have been studied in either of the two ongoing studies he’s been in charge of — the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Studies.

That said, I recommend a minimum of five servings a day of “smart fats,” and as much “neutral” fat as you like, meaning whatever makes your food taste better. “Smart fats” are those that have been shown to have health benefits in humans — a good example is fish oil (or fish); or the fat from avocados or olive oil or nuts, coconut oil or Malaysian palm oil. Neutral fats would be butter, ghee or any other fat that doesn’t necessarily have proven benefits but also will not hurt you in any way. Here are some sample serving sizes:

  • Half an avocado
  • 1 ounce (handful) of nuts
  • 1 Tablespoon oil (nut oil, avocado oil, Malaysian palm oil, MCT oil, coconut oil, olive oil)
  • Two large organic, cage-free eggs
  • 6-8 ounces fatty fish
  • 1 ounce of dark chocolate

What are your top foods to eat for healthy fat intake? Tweet us your favs @BritandCo.

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(Photos via Getty)