Think all fat is bad for you?
Here’s everything you need to know about dietary fat, including how to choose good fats vs bad fats and the power of omega-3s.
What are dietary fats?
Fat is a type of nutrient, just like protein and carbohydrates. Your body needs some fat for energy to absorb vitamins, to protect your heart and brain health. For years we’ve been told that eating fat will add inches to your waistline, raise cholesterol, and cause myriad health problems. But now we know that not all fat is the same.
“Bad” fats, such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, an increased risk of certain diseases, and so forth.
But “good” fats such as unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids have the opposite effect. Healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
By understanding the difference between good and bad fats and how to include more healthy fat in your diet, you can improve how well you think and feel, boost your energy, and even trim your waistline.
Dietary Fat and Cholesterol
Dietary fat plays a role in your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can harm your health. As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol.
- HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in your blood.
- LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind.
- Keep LDL levels low and HDL high, which may protect against heart disease and stroke.
- High LDL cholesterol levels can clog arteries, and low HDL can be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk.
Rather than the amount of cholesterol you eat, the biggest influence on your cholesterol levels is the type of fats you consume. So instead of counting cholesterol, it’s significant to focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats
Since fat is a significant part of a healthy diet, rather than adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating more beneficial “good” fats and limiting harmful “bad” fats.
Healthy or “Good” Fats
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats”, as they are beneficial for your heart, cholesterol and overall health.
These fats can help to:
- Risk of heart disease and stroke
- Bad LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing good HDL
- Triglycerides associated with heart disease and fight inflammation
- Blood pressure
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries)
Monounsaturated Fat – Good Sources Include:
- Olive, canola, peanut, and sesame oils
- Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
- Peanut butter
- Polyunsaturated fat – good sources include:
- Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines) and fish oil
- Soybean and safflower oil
Unhealthy or “Bad” Fats
Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats are in meat and dairy products, but artificial trans fats are considered dangerous. It is the worst type of fat - it not only raises bad LDL cholesterol but lowers good HDL levels.
Artificial trans fats can also create inflammation linking to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions - contributes to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Trans Fat – Primary Sources Include:
- Commercially-baked pastries (cookies, doughnuts, muffins)
- Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips)
- Stick margarine, vegetable shortening
- Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets)
- Anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, even if it claims to be “trans-fat-free”
It’s not as harmful as trans fat, saturated fat can raise bad LDL cholesterol and negatively impact heart health, so it’s best to consume in moderation. While there’s no need to cut out all saturated fat from your diet, most nutrition experts recommend limiting it to 10% of your daily calories.
Saturated Fat – Primary Sources Include:
- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork)
- Chicken skin
- Whole-fat dairy products (milk, cream, cheese)
- Ice cream
- Tropical oils (coconut, palm oil)
For decades, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities have told us that a diet high in saturated fats increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
However, recent studies have made headlines by casting doubt on those claims, concluding that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.
So, does that mean it’s OK to eat as much saturated fat as you want?
When cutting down on saturated fats in your diet, it’s significant to replace them with the right foods. For example, swapping animal fats for vegetable oils—such as replacing butter with olive oil—can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk for disease.
However, swapping animal fats for refined carbohydrates—such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a bagel or pastry—won’t have the same benefits. Eating refined carbohydrates or sugary foods can have a similar negative effect on your cholesterol levels, your risk for heart disease, and your weight.
Limiting your saturated fat intake can still help improve your health—as long as you replace it with good fat rather than refined carbs. In other words, don’t go no-fat, instead go good fat.