Fats have gotten a bad reputation as being unhealthy when, in fact, they are a vital part of a balanced diet. The body uses fats for many essential bodily functions, and our brains cannot function without them. Before you start dining on deep-fried snacks at every meal, though, keep in mind that not all fats are made equal.

Everything in moderation holds true here, as in most cases, but it's useful to understand which fats improve your health and which can detract if eaten in excess.

Monounsaturated Fats

When consumed in moderation, monounsaturated fats are great for your health. They can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels and protect the heart, which has a whole host of benefits in itself.

Many plant-based liquid oils like olive oil and sesame oil are rich in monounsaturated fats, as are seeds, nuts, peanut butter, and avocados.

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Polyunsaturated Fats

Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats help lower LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides in the blood while helping the body process fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, and E.

Polyunsaturated fats provide energy, support cellular function, and influence brain health. They encompass both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish and flaxseed.

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Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids deserve their own mention. They come in three primary forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA is mostly plant-based, EPA and DHA come almost exclusively from seafood, though there are vegetarian supplements.

This essential fatty acid cannot be produced by the body, meaning it must be consumed. A diet rich in omega-3 fats is particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding because this nutrient facilitates infant growth. It's also known to lower the risk of cancer, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and rheumatoid arthritis.

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Omega-6 Fats

We primarily consume omega-6 fatty acids through vegetable oils. A diet rich in omega-6 fatty acids can also improve harmful cholesterol levels while boosting HDL, the healthy cholesterol. It is responsible for stimulating skin and hair growth and plays a vital role in the reproductive system.

When consumed in the right ratio to omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6s may also alleviate nerve pain and help manage rheumatoid arthritis.

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Healthy Fats May Alleviate Inflammatory Conditions

While saturated fats tend to cause inflammation, unsaturated fats seem to have the opposite effect. Many anti-inflammatory diets emphasize the consumption of unsaturated fats.

Eating foods such as salmon, avocados, and olive oil, increasing vegetable intake, and—for some people—decreasing inflammatory sugars and carbs can increase antioxidants in the body and reduce free radical damage.

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Healthy Fats Lower the Risk of Heart Disease

Opting for more unsaturated fats than saturated, especially monounsaturated fats, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and improves blood lipid levels and insulin responsiveness in people with type 2 diabetes. This helps to control blood sugar levels and body weight; when a person also takes steps to balance their cholesterol levels, their risk of heart disease decreases.

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Healthy Fats Support the Brain

60% of the brain is comprised of fats, so it should be no surprise that omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats boost brain function. Consuming enough healthy fats—through olive oil and other omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods—can help improve learning and memory function. Studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in healthy fats, offers protective effects against memory decline and brain atrophy.

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Healthy Fats Improve Skin Health

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids influence the skin. In particular, omega-6 fatty acids keep the skin functioning and healthy, and supplementing with topical creams or oral capsules can help alleviate symptoms of sensitivity and inflammation in the skin. Topical products with saturated fats do not have the same beneficial effect.

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Healthy Fats Encourage Better Sleep

Eating fish and other foods rich in EPA and DHA can improve sleep quality. In a study where some subjects received fatty acid-rich Atlantic salmon three times a week while others received meats low in these fats, the former group regularly self-reported that they felt they functioned better during the day and got higher-quality sleep.

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The Mediterranean Diet and Healthy Fats

One of the most common anti-inflammatory diets is the Mediterranean diet, and it is loaded with healthy fats from sources such as olive oil and fresh fatty fish over saturated fat options that tend to exacerbate inflammation in the body.

This diet brings with it all of the benefits healthy fats offer while tasting good, too. As always, check with your doctor before making drastic changes to your diet, even if they seem healthier.

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