Here to find healthy fats for keto? That’s good, because when it comes to the macronutrient ratio of the ketogenic diet, 75% of your calories should come from fats (about 20% from protein and around 5% from carbs). If the keto diet macro ratio was represented like a globe model of Earth, the fats would be the ocean; they would take up over 70% of the surface of this diet as seen from space.
So much of the focus in reaching ketosis is finding strong protein sources and working hard to minimize carb intake in a smart, sustainable way, but in the big picture, it’s the fats that will make up the majority of your keto diet. If fats are where you’ve got to get most of your calories from, what exactly are you supposed to eat so much of? And which fats are the healthiest, what foods can they be found in? Let’s find out!
A Closer Look: Healthy Fats for Keto
While trans and polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oil are not the healthiest, there are some exceptions when they come from natural sources, and those foods can be eaten in moderation. That being said, most of your daily fat intake should be from saturated and monounsaturated fats, so it’s good to know which foods fall under those categories and what the difference is between them.
Here is a breakdown of each type of fat (metabolic pun intended), so that you can start identifying the right fats to include in your keto diet and meet your fat intake goals each day. Let’s first explore foods with healthy fats.
Saturated Fatty Acids (SFAs)
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, like cooling bacon grease, the marbling in meat, or your average table butter in its butter dish. Natural sources of saturated fat include red meat, whole milk and cream, eggs, lard, butter or ghee (which is clarified butter), as well as coconut oil, palm oil, and MCT oil. In case you were wondering, the word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding or saturating each carbon atom. Here are some other common health questions about saturated fats.
What About the Risk of Heart Disease?
While some reports have sought to link saturated fats with heart disease, a meta-analysis of 21 studies (which included 347,747 test subjects) showed there was no conclusive evidence that saturated fat increased the risk of heart disease. Other studies suggest that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats could go further in reducing the risk of heart disease—if it’s a concern for you, see the polyunsaturated fats section below to know which ones work best with a keto diet.
What About Cholesterol Levels?
A diet rich in saturated fats can increase one’s total cholesterol, and for that reason, a lot of nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to under 10% of your calories per day. It’s important to remember that cholesterol is not by nature bad. Cholesterol is actually needed in the body to make hormones like cortisol and testosterone. However, when it comes to the vehicles for cholesterol’s movement in the body, low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) are often touted as the “bad” cholesterol transporter because they direct cholesterol to areas of dangerous buildup (like the insides of your arteries). LDL particles come in four sizes: large, intermediate, small, and very small.
- Small/very small LDL: These particles are tiny enough to penetrate the arterial wall and are the causes of premature coronary artery disease.
- Large/intermediate LDL: These larger particles are not associated with an elevated risk of heart disease, and it’s here we’ll note that high saturated fat intake has been shown in another study to increase the large LDL concentrations, while possibly indicating signs that it lowers the dangerous small particle concentrations.
Do Saturated Fats do Anything to the “Good” Protein Vehicle?
Yes, saturated fats actually raise concentrations of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs). These are the good cholesterol vehicles; the ones that remove cholesterol from your blood to prevent the buildup caused by small and very small LDL particles. This means that saturated fats help to improve your LDL-to-HDL ratio (ideally you’d want them matched 1:1).
Featured Food Example: MCT Oil
MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. These are medium-chain fatty acids that are found in coconut and palm oils. MCT oil is a concentrated form of these ketogenic fatty acids that can be added to your morning coffee, dropped into smoothies, blended with pre- and post-workout shakes, or made into sauces or dressings. Because MCT oil is tasteless and odorless, it is a versatile ingredient to have on hand. Add it as a filler to condiments, make chocolate sauce by adding a little cocoa powder, or you can even shoot it straight or mix it with water to make sure you round out your most-needed keto macronutrient during the day.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs)
No controversy here, monounsaturated fatty acids (one of the two unsaturated fats) are known to be healthy. You can get them from extra virgin olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, as well as goose fat, bacon fat, and lard. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true that monounsaturated fatty acids can do a lot of good for your health, on or off a keto diet.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids increase those good HDLs. Monounsaturated fat has been shown to increase the effectiveness of a cholesterol-lowering dietary portfolio, which helps get you closer and closer to the ideal LDL-to-HDL cholesterol ratio.
- MUFAs can help lower your blood pressure. Specifically olive oil is noted as exerting a favorable effect on blood pressure (with extra virgin olive oil doing even better).
- Monounsaturated fatty acids can actually reduce belly fat. With MUFAs you can eat less and feel fuller, and they even help to increase your basal metabolic rate, which means you burn fat more quickly. All of this contributes to getting a tighter tummy.
Featured Food Example: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil’s health benefits are believed to be the result of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity from its polyphenolic compounds, which could lower the risk for developing atherosclerotic plaques. Extra virgin olive oil is the best choice to get the most health benefits due to its particularly high polyphenol content. EVOO (as it’s often abbreviated) is an excellent base for homemade keto salad dressings, and, of course, can be used to cook/flavor other foods in stovetop and baking recipes.
A Deeper Dive: Unhealthy Fats
Now for those unhealthy fat sources (with a few exceptions to the rule).
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
This category is on the fence, with some foods proving detrimental to a keto diet and a small handful of others providing a boon.
- Processed PUFAs should be avoided. This includes vegetable oils such as soybean, canola, corn, and sunflower oils. Their processing can involve a lot of chemicals, bleach, solvents, and more, rendering them pretty undesirable.
- Processed PUFAs also have a high omega-6 fatty acid content. While omega-6 acids don’t need to be avoided like the plague exactly, we get enough omega-6 from other sources, so you don’t have to miss them here.
- Healthy and natural sources of PUFAs can be enjoyed. These will come from natural sources like fish, fish oil, flaxseed, and chia seeds. The foods in this category contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Ideally we should have a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 acids, so eating from these options is good for your overall balance.
Featured Food Example: Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are quite high in fiber and are rich with omega-3 PUFAs, which are considered to be anti-inflammatory. Chia seeds are also a good source of calcium—just one serving provides 18% of the daily recommended value of calcium. Chia seeds may also help lower blood sugar and increase satiety. Even its name “chia” means strength. Folklore says that ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures used chia seeds as an energy booster. Able to absorb moisture, chia seeds can swell up and become gel-like, which is why there are a dazzling variety of chia seed pudding recipes available to you.
Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs)
Trans fats are well-known for being the most unhealthy form of fat in our diets, and the exceptions here are a very short list.
- Hydrogenated foods should be avoided. The hydrogenation process helps stabilize polyunsaturated oils to stop them from turning rancid quickly. You’ll find hydrogenated fats in commercially baked goods, processed foods, fast foods, and margarine.
- Processed trans fats are known to cause coronary heart diseases. TFAs are associated with a long list of chronic health problems like obesity, and will bring you almost no dietary benefit for all that they cost your body to eat.
- Natural trans fats are the small exception. Naturally occurring trans fats are produced in some animals and are in foods made from these animals, like milk (dairy fat) and meat products (particularly from grass-fed animals). This specific type of trans fat can be beneficial to us, providing protection against cancer and encouraging a reduction of obesity and hypertension.
Featured Food Example: Cheese and Yogurt
An example of natural trans fats that are okay to eat on a keto diet are items derived from dairy like whole milk cheese and Greek yogurt. Studies show that there is a difference between natural trans fats and the industrial form of them, and while dairy products do have them, they only contain them in very small amounts (2-6% of the total fat). These fats are not associated with risks of heart disease, and some studies even suggest that a type of trans fat (conjugated linoleic acid or CLA), may protect against certain types of cancer.
Healthy Fats for Keto and You
While it’s still recommended that people favor unsaturated fats over saturated fats in their diets, both are considered keto friendly, and even trans fats aren’t the no-go zone they first appear to be. The truth of the matter is something you probably could have guessed: the more processed foods are, the fewer nutrients and more problems they’ll bring to your body. It turns out that a huge part of the keto journey is not just retraining your body’s metabolism, but rethinking the things you’ve been told about good foods vs. bad, and the reasoning behind those designations.
Honestly, when it comes to which foods you buy, there is a marketing component at play that isn’t necessarily looking out for your health. The processing food undergoes is done to increase a product’s shelf life and its visual or texture appeal. If that processing then leads to fewer vitamins and more chemicals in your meals, then the onus is suddenly on you as a health-conscious consumer to see past the hype. The kind of cell-deep thinking that goes into developing a keto diet and a state of ketosis brings an added bonus of education along with it.
The keto diet’s high-fat ratio is unique among diets, so it’s sometimes difficult to get information on good fats vs. bad. In trying to lose weight, people naturally assume that fat is the one thing you don’t want to eat, but the key to reaching ketosis is to use and burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. That’s why this diet is low in carbs and high in fat, because the fat is truly the main focus: you’re trying to use it and lose it!
Don’t be afraid of saturated and trans fats going forward. Choose foods that are as close to nature as possible to gain the health benefits you need while on your keto journey to optimal weight loss.