Confused about beneficial fats and bad fats? You’re not alone. Aside from questions about weight loss, the topic of beneficial fats seems to come up more than any other. Many people I talk to remember the low fat diet era of 20 years ago—just as they remember the high fat/low carb era that followed right behind. Then suddenly it wasn’t merely about how much, or how little fat we should be eating, but whether or not we were eating the right kinds of fat.

What Are Beneficial Fats, and Why Are They Good For You?

Fats can be divided up into two broad categories: saturated (unhealthy fats) and unsaturated (beneficial fats). Of the two, the unsaturated fats are considered better for you, since these fats are derived primarily from plant foods and can help to keep blood cholesterol levels within a normal range. On the other hand, a diet with a lot of saturated fats (found primarily in animal products like butter, cheese, whole milk and meat), can contribute to a rise in cholesterol.

Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into two categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. You’ll find monounsaturated fats in nuts, seeds, olive oils and avocados. They’re considered beneficial when eaten in moderate amounts.

Polyunsaturated fats can be further classified as either omega-3 or omega-6 fats. While your body requires both types, you need them in the proper balance to promote health. The problem for most of us is that we eat too many omega-6 fats (fried foods, snack foods and sweet baked goods) and not enough fish, nuts, seeds and leafy greens that provide the omega-3s.

Be Choosy With Fats To Keep Calories in Check

Now, added fats do add calories to your diet. All oils, regardless of their source, have about 120 calories a tablespoon. Just because olive oil is a beneficial fat, doesn’t mean you should pour it all over your food.

How to Get More Beneficial Fats Into Your Diet

The foods that contain beneficial fats include nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil, seafood and avocados. Here are some ways to work more of these beneficial fats into your day.

Nuts and Seeds

Almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans are considered tree nuts, which have more heart-healthy omega-3 than peanuts (not actually nuts, but beans). Here are some ways to include more nuts and seeds into your diet.

      • A handful of nuts make a filling snack.
      • Try stirring some nut butter into oatmeal, yogurt or protein shakes; or spread some on apple slices for a quick snack.
      • Finely ground nuts make a delicious crispy coating for fish or chicken. Dip fish fillets or chicken breasts into beaten egg white, then lightly coat with ground nuts. Season with salt and pepper, then bake or saute.
      • Sprinkle nuts or seeds into green salads, on top of cooked vegetables, yogurt or hot cereal, and into your shakes.
      • Add nuts and seeds to trail mix.
      • Tahini (sesame seed paste) makes a delicious base for a salad dressing or sauce.
Olive Oil and Olives

Olive oil is also one of the richest sources of monounsaturated fat. If the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil is too strong for you, look for light olive oils that have the same calories as regular olive oil, but are lighter in flavor.

      • Use olive oil to replace vegetable oils and butter when you cook.
      • Make your own salad dressing with 2 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice or vinegar; salt and pepper to taste.
      • Use a tiny bit of olive oil to flavor cooked vegetables.
      • Add whole olives to salad, or chopped olives to pasta sauces, or stirred into whole grain dishes after cooking.
      • Try an olive spread on whole grain crackers. Whip up chopped olives, garlic and a little tomato paste in the blender.
Seafood

Fish fat naturally contains heart-healthy omega-3.

      • Canned tuna and salmon are super-convenient. Flake some tuna or salmon on top of a green salad for a quick meal.
      • Add frozen cooked shrimp and scallops to soups or pasta dishes.
      • Use fish instead of chicken in some of your favorite dishes like tacos or one-dish meals.
      • Order fish more often in restaurants.
Avocado

Avocados are technically a fruit and a good source of monounsaturated fat. Here are a few of my favorite uses for avocado.

      • Use mashed avocado as a substitute for mayonnaise in tuna salad or egg salad.
      • Mash into guacamole with a little lime juice and salt; use cut veggies rather than chips for dipping.
      • Try a few slices of avocado in an omelet, or on top of hard-boiled eggs.
      • Mix diced avocado, mango and red onion with a little lime juice and cilantro into a delicious salsa.