Fat FactsLast updated: Jun 30, 2014
Confused about how much fat is safe to eat?
Unsure which fats are important for good health?
You're not alone!
Healthy eating guidelines for the last 30 years have emphasized eating less total fat to promote heart health. But while some fats can increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers, others are important for good health.
Good Fats, Bad Fats
Fat occurs naturally in many foods, including nuts and seeds, avocados, meat, poultry, and seafood, as well as dairy foods such as eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, sour cream, and whole milk. People often add fat to enhance the taste and consistency of certain foods such as mixing in mayonnaise to make tuna salad, oil for frying foods, butter in baked goods, and oils to create salad dressings.
All fats contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Good fats, or those that are important for your health, are comprised of higher amounts of unsaturated, essential fatty acids that help you absorb fat-soluable vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Bad fats, or those that can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease, have higher amounts of saturated fatty acids.1
Saturated fats are associated with higher total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Having high total or LDL cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Primary sources of saturated fats in the average American diet are:
- Cheeses made from whole milk
- Pizza topped with cheese
- Sweets such as cookies, cakes, patries, and pies
- Dairy-based sweets such as pudding and ice cream
- Chicken fingers and chicken-mixed dishes
- Sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs1
Tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil are high in saturated fatty acids. Tropical oils often are used in commercially produced cakes, cookies, and salty snacks such as chips.1
Trans Fats and Hydrogenated Foods
Hydrogenated foods such as stick margarine, commercially made desserts, crackers, crispy snacks, and cookies contain trans fatty acids. In hydrogenation, food manufacturers turn liquid oil into a solid to extend the shelf life of foods. Hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids, which are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.1 Meat and milk contain trans fats in small amounts.
Produced by the liver, cholesterol has 3 main functions in the body: first, the outer coating of cells is comprised of cholesterol; second, cholesterol is combined with bile acids to help digest food; and third, cholesterol is an important part of hormone such as estrogen and testosterone. Because plants cannot make cholesterol, cholesterol is found only in foods made from animals. Eating saturated and trans fats can increase cholesterol levels far greater than cholesterol in food. Limiting foods high in saturated fat can lower cholesterol levels.1
Unsaturated fats made from plants such as canola oil, corn oil, olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil remain a liquid at room temperature. Oils such as these provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E, both of which are important for health. They are not associated with heart disease, stroke, and an increased risk of certain cancers. For this reason, it is wise to replace solid, saturated fats and trans fatty acids with unsaturated fats.
Unsaturated fats come in 2 forms — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are important for healthy brain function as well as growth and development. Soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil as well as fatty fish such salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout and walnuts and sunflower seeds are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids.2
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, and sesame oil as well as avocados, peanut butter, and many seeds and nuts. Monounsaturated fats help lower riks of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients that help develop and maintain cells. Monounsaturated fats are usually high in vitamin E, which is important for health.
Research shows that another unsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acid, can help prevent arteries from clogging, lower blood pressure, and help prevent irregular heart beats (arrhythmias). Salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and certain shellfish as well as walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and soybean oil are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.4
American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology (AHA/ACC)
dietary guidelines recommend that adults get 32% to 35%
of total calories from fat, with less than 6% of total fat from saturated fat.5
To achieve the AHA/ACC goal, it's important to eliminate trans fats from hydrongenated and partially hydrongenated foods in your diet and replace them with foods that contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids.
To replace saturated-fat foods with foods containing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat:
- Use liquid canola oil or olive oil instead of butter or lard
- Eat less red meat and replace it with fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Replace snack foods such as chips with a 1-ounce portion of nuts
- Bake, broil, or grill foods instead of frying them
- Remove oil-soaked breading on fried chicken and fish
- Trim fat from meat, including removing the skin from chicken before you cook or eat it
- Choose low-fat dairy products such as low-fat cheeses, milk, and yogurt
- Check food labels to avoid foods containing partially or fully hydrogenated fats that produce trans fatty acids
The Mediterranean diet is high in healthy fish, vegetables, whole grains,
fruits, and olive oil are associated with lower rates of heart disease and stroke.
1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed June 30, 2014.
2. American Heart Association. Polyunsaturated fats. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/Fats101/Polyunsaturated-Fats_UCM_301461_Article.jsp. Accessed June 30, 2014.
3. American Heart Association. Monounsaturate Fats. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/Fats101/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp. Accessed June 30, 2014.
4. American Heart Association. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp. Accessed June 30, 2014.