What Are Good Fats and Bad Fats?
Your guide to making healthier fat choices.
Long gone are the days when all fats were “bad.” Now we know that what’s important are the types of fat we eat, and how much. For instance, oils—full of unsaturated fatty acids—generally fall into the “healthy” camp. When you choose oil over a solid fat, such as shortening or butter, you’re helping to cut back your consumption of saturated fats, one of the nutritional bad guys. Similarly, when you choose nuts over crackers you may be limiting your intake of trans fats, another type of unhealthy fats.
Fats 101: All food sources that we think of as “fats”—we’re talking butter, shortening, oils—are made up of a combination of fatty acids: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. All fats contain all three types but are classified by the type of fatty acid that makes up most of the fat. For example, olive oil is about 78 percent monounsaturated fat, so it’s considered a monounsaturated fat. Trans fats are man-made fats used in processed foods to increase their shelf life.
Eat These Good Fats:
Common sources: Olives, avocado, nuts and seeds; cooking oils, including olive oil and peanut oil
How to spot them: They’re liquid at room temperature but become semi-solid (or cloudy) in the refrigerator.
Health effects: When substituted for saturated fats, research suggests that monounsaturated fats may help keep “bad” LDL cholesterol low and boost levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and, in that way, reduce risk for heart disease.
Polyunsaturated Fats (includes omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats)
Common sources: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel; nuts and seeds; cooking oils including sunflower oil, canola and walnut oil
How to spot them: They’re always liquid—even if you put them in the fridge.
Health notes: Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats may help improve blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing risk for heart disease. Although both omega-6 and omega-3 fats (two specific types of polyunsaturated fats) are essential for good health, omega-3s may have additional heart-health and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Limit (or Avoid) These Bad Fats:
Common sources: Butter, lard, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products, including whole-milk cheese and yogurts
How to spot them: They’re solid at room temperature.
Health notes: A diet high in saturated fat has been linked with elevated cholesterol levels and increased risk for heart disease, so it’s best to limit your intake. The American Heart Association suggests limiting your intake of saturated fat to 7 percent of total calories—that’s 16 grams for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.
Trans Fats/Partially Hydrogenated Fats
Common Sources: Many packaged snacks, commercially prepared baked goods, salad dressings, deep-fried fast food and some margarines.
How to spot them: Check ingredient lists for the terms “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fats. Food manufacturers don’t have to report the trans-fat content if it’s less than 0.5 gram per serving, so a product may include trans fats even if the label reports 0 grams.
Health notes: Trans fats are the unhealthiest of all: they increase (“bad”) LDL and decrease (“good”) HDL. Aim to limit trans fats to less than 1 percent of total calories per day. Some experts recommend trying to avoid them all together.
Fast Fat Swaps
Cut back on saturated fat—and benefit from nutrition bonuses—with these easy swaps.
Salmon for steak: You’ll not only cut back on saturated fat but also gain heart-healthy omega-3s. 1.1 g sat fat (3 oz.) vs 9.1 g (3 oz.)
Avocado for brie: Replacing high-in-saturated-fat brie with avocado gets you “good” monounsaturated fats and a good amount of dietary fiber, vitamin C and potassium. 1.1g sat fat (1/4 avocado) vs 4.9 g (1 oz.)
Extra-virgin olive oil for butter: You’ll save 5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and gain antioxidants found in extra-virgin olive oil. 1.9 g sat fat (1 Tbsp) vs 7.3 g (1 Tbsp)
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