For years, nutritionists and doctors have preached that a low-fat diet is the key to controlling weight, managing cholesterol, and preventing health problems. But more than just the amount of fat, it’s the types of fat you eat that really matter. Bad fats increase cholesterol and your risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect your heart and support overall health. In fact, good fats—such as omega-3 fats—are essential to physical and emotional health.
Types of dietary fat: Good fats vs. bad fats
To understand good and bad fats, you need to know the names of the players and some information about them. There are four major types of fats:
- monounsaturated fats
- polyunsaturated fats
- saturated fats
- trans 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.
Saturated fats and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and elevate cholesterol.
Appearance-wise, saturated fats and trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think of butter or traditional stick margarine) while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid (think of olive or corn oil).
General guidelines for choosing healthy fats
With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing. But the bottom line is simple: don’t go no-fat, go good fat.
If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing saturated fats and trans fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans and legumes, or using olive oil rather than butter.
- Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commercially-baked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.
- Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.
- Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.
How much fat is too much?
How much fat is too much depends on your lifestyle, your weight, your age, and most importantly the state of your health. The USDA recommends that the average individual:
- Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories
- Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)
- Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Saturated fats: Reduce this bad fat
When focusing on healthy fats, a good place to start is reducing your consumption of saturated fats. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as red meat and whole milk dairy products. Poultry and fish also contain saturated fat, but less than red meat. Other sources of saturated fat include tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Simple ways to reduce saturated fat
- Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and more fish and chicken
- Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.
- Bake, broil, or grill instead of frying.
- Remove the skin from chicken and trim as much fat off of meat as possible before cooking.
- Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.
- Choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation.
- Use liquid vegetable oils such as olive oil or canola oil instead of lard, shortening, or butter.
- Avoid cream and cheese sauces, or have them served on the side.
Eliminate trans fats from your diet
A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you.
No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.
Sources of trans fats
Many people think of margarine when they picture trans fats, and it’s true that some margarines are loaded with them. However, the primary source of trans fats in the Western diet comes from commercially-prepared baked goods and snack foods:
- Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns
- Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
- Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn
- Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening
- Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix
Getting more good, unsaturated fats in your diet
Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats everyone keeps talking about?
The best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
- Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try canola or vegetable oil.
- Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.
- Reach for the nuts. You can also add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.
- Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own. Try them plain or make a tapenade for dipping.
- Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.