Think all fat is bad for you? Here’s everything you need to know about dietary fat, including how to choose good fats over bad fats and the power of omega-3s.
What are dietary fats?
Fat is a nutrient, and your body requires it for energy, vitamin absorption, and heart and brain health protection, much like protein and carbohydrates.
We’ve been warned for years that eating fat will increase your waistline, elevate your cholesterol, and create a slew of other health issues. However, we now understand that not all fat is created equal.
“Bad” fats, such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are responsible for the same health problems as all fats: weight gain, clogged arteries, an increased risk of certain diseases, and so on. Unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have the opposite impact.
In fact, 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 major 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 have a negative impact on your health. As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol.
- The “good” cholesterol detected in your blood is HDL cholesterol.
- The “bad” cholesterol is LDL.
- The objective is to keep LDL levels low and HDL levels high, as this can help prevent heart disease and stroke.
- High levels of LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can clog arteries, and low HDL can be a sign of 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 important to focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.
Good fats vs. bad fats
Since fat is an important 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” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health. These fats can help to:
- Reduce your chances of heart disease and stroke.
- Lower your bad LDL cholesterol while raising your good HDL cholesterol.
- Prevent aberrant cardiac rhythms from occurring.
- Reduce triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease, and combat inflammation.
- Reduce your blood pressure.
- Atherosclerosis can be avoided (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).
- Adding more of these healthy fats to your diet may also help to make you feel more satisfied after a meal, reducing hunger and thus promoting weight loss.
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
Trans fat is a type of fat that can be found in Natural trans fats can be found in small amounts in meat and dairy products but synthesized trans fats are considered harmful. This is the worst form of fat since it elevates both bad LDL and good HDL cholesterol levels.
Artificial trans fats can also cause inflammation, which has been related to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses, as well as insulin resistance, which raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has virtually banned the use of artificial trans-fats in commercially produced food, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged other countries around the world to do the same by 2023.
Products manufactured before the FDA’s ban may, however, still be available for purchase. It’s still necessary to examine food labels carefully because items might be labeled as “zero trans fats” even if they contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
Look for “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list. The amount of artificial trans fats in these covert sources might quickly add up.
If your country still allows the use of artificial trans fats, remember that no amount is considered safe, so aim to eliminate it from your diet.
Trans fat – primary sources include:
- Pastries, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, and pizza dough cooked commercially
- Snack snacks in packages (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips)
- Vegetable shortening, stick margarine
- foods that have been fried (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish)
- Even if it claims to be “trans fat-free,” anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil should be avoided.
Saturated fat. While not as harmful as trans fat, saturated fat can raise bad LDL cholesterol, and too much can negatively impact heart health, so it’s best consumed 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 such as coconut and palm oil
But I’ve read that saturated fat is no longer considered unhealthy.
For decades, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities have told us that a diet high in saturated fats raises blood cholesterol and increases 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?
These studies show that it’s critical to replace saturated fats in your diet with the correct foods when cutting back on them. For example, substituting animal fats with vegetable oils, such as butter with olive oil, can help cut cholesterol and minimize disease risk.
However, substituting refined carbs for animal fats, such as replacing breakfast bacon with a bagel or pastry, would not provide the same benefits.
Because eating refined carbohydrates or sugary meals can have a similar bad impact on your cholesterol levels, heart disease risk, and weight, it’s a good idea to avoid them.
Limiting your intake of saturated fat can still help improve your health—as long as you take care to replace it with good fat rather than refined carbs. In other words, don’t get any fat, go for good fat.
Healthy fats: The power of omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are especially beneficial to your health. There are different types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA are found in fish and algae and have the most health benefits, while ALA comes from plants and is a less potent form of omega-3, although the body does convert ALA to EPA and DHA at low rates.
- Prevent and treat depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder symptoms.
- Memory loss and dementia can be prevented.
- Reduce your chances of developing heart disease, stroke, or cancer.
- Arthritis, joint discomfort, and inflammatory skin disorders can all be relieved with this supplement.
- Help to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
- Combat weariness, improve your memory, and keep your mood in check.
How much omega-3 do you need?
The American Heart Association recommends that people with documented heart disease get about 1 gram of EPA plus DHA per day. For the rest of us, the AHA recommends eating at least two 3.5 oz. (100 g) servings of fish per week.
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are highest in omega-3 fatty acids.
- If you don’t eat fish, you may want to take an omega-3 supplement, widely available over the counter.
- Try to also include a variety of ALA-rich oils, nuts, seeds, and vegetables in your diet.
What to do about mercury in fish?
Despite the health benefits, almost all seafood contains contaminants, including the dangerous element mercury. Larger fish contain higher levels of contaminants, therefore avoid shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.
A week’s worth of cooked fish for most adults is 12 oz. (two 6 oz. or 170 g meals). Choose mercury-free fish such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, or catfish for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under the age of 12. You can also protect yourself by incorporating a variety of fish into your diet.
While omega-3s are best obtained through food, there are many omega-3 and fish oil supplements available. Fish oil contains no mercury (mercury binds to protein, not fat) and very low amounts of other contaminants.
- Most people should be able to get enough EPA and DHA from one capsule per day, which provides roughly 200 to 400 mg of EPA and DHA.
- Your doctor may offer prescription fish oil, which has been concentrated to include roughly 900 mg of EPA and DHA each capsule, if you need to lower your triglycerides significantly.
- Look for capsules containing DHA and EPA taken from algae, the original source of omega-3s for fish, for severe vegetarians or vegans, in addition to ALA from food sources.
Tips for taking supplements
For some, fish oil capsules can be hard to swallow and may leave a fishy aftertaste. Keeping the capsules in the freezer before taking them can help or you can look for odorless or deodorized capsules.
Choosing healthy oils
Vegetable oils lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean contain omega-6, a type of polyunsaturated fat that may help to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation.
- Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as olive, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil whenever possible.
- When using olive oil, opt for “extra virgin,” which may have additional heart benefits over regular olive oil.
- Less processed oils, such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, contain potentially beneficial phytochemicals.
What about tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil?
The food industry likes to tout the benefits of tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil, while dietary guidelines shun them for being too high in saturated fat. So, who is right?
Tropical oils can have a complex effect on blood cholesterol levels. For example, they can raise “bad” LDL cholesterol but also raise “good” HDL cholesterol, while their effects on other markers for heart disease are not yet clearly known.
- For now, it’s probably safer to stick to vegetable oils since there’s stronger evidence that these oils are heart-healthy.
- If you occasionally want to eat something that contains coconut or palm oil, enjoy it as a treat—it’s better than eating something with trans fat, which these tropical oils often replace.
Tips for adding more healthy fats to your diet
Instead of obsessively counting fat grams, aim for a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruit, nuts, and beans, with two or more weekly servings of fatty fish, moderate amounts of dairy, small amounts of red meat, and only occasional fried or processed meals.
This might mean replacing fried chicken with grilled chicken, swapping out some of the red meat you eat with other sources of protein such as fish, chicken, or beans, or using olive oil rather than butter. Following a Mediterranean diet can also help ensure you’re getting enough good fats in your diet and limiting the bad ones.
Reduce your saturated fat intake by substituting beans, nuts, poultry, and fish for some of your red meat, and moving from whole milk to low-fat dairy. But don’t make the mistake of substituting refined carbohydrates and sugary meals for saturated fat.
Every day, consume omega-3 fats. Include walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil, as well as a variety of seafood and plant sources.
Cook using extra virgin olive oil. Instead of butter, stick margarine, or lard, use olive oil for stovetop cooking. Canola oil is a good option for baking.
Consume more avocados. Make guacamole with them or use them in sandwiches and salads. They’re full of heart- and brain-healthy fats and make for a satisfying dinner.
Make a go for the nuts. Nuts can be added to vegetable meals, substituted for breadcrumbs in chicken or fish, or used to construct your own trail mix with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
Olives are a tasty snack. Olives are a low-calorie snack that is high in healthful monounsaturated fats. You may eat them straight or make a tapenade to dip them in.
Make your own salad dressing. Salad dressings from the store are frequently heavy in unhealthy fats and sugars. Use olive, flaxseed, or sesame oils to make your own healthy dressings.