When it comes to diet, fats get a bad rap in general. Some of this perception is justified, as certain types of fat and the fat-like substance cholesterol, may play a role in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
But not all fats are created equal. Some fats are better for you than others, and may even help to promote good health, according to the Mayo Clinic. Knowing the difference can help you determine which fats to avoid and which to eat in moderation.
Though research continues to evolve on the subject of dietary fat, some facts are clear. Dietary fat—also known as fatty acids—can be found in foods from both plants and animals. While certain fats have been linked to negative effects on heart health, others have been found to offer significant health benefits.
Fat is as essential to your diet as protein and carbohydrates are in fueling your body with energy. Certain bodily functions also rely on the presence of fat. For example, some vitamins require fat in order to dissolve into your bloodstream and provide nutrients. However, the excess calories from eating too much fat of any type can lead to weight gain, according to Stanford Hospital and Clinics.
Stanford notes that all foods and oils contain a mixture of fatty acids, but can be categorized by the predominant type of fat contained.
Here’s what you need to know about which fats are considered “bad” and which are better:
What are Bad Fats?
Two types of fats—saturated fat and trans fat—have been identified as potentially harmful to your heart. One way to recognize these fats is that most are solid at room temperature, such as butter, margarine, shortening, and beef or pork fat.
Both saturated fat and trans fat should be avoided or eaten only sparingly. Harvard Medical School recommends limiting foods high in saturated fat and eliminating all foods from your diet that contain trans fat.
Examples of Bad Fats
This type of fat is primarily animal-based, and is found in high-fat ?meats and dairy products. Some typical sources of saturated fats include:
- fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
- dark chicken meat and poultry skin
- high fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream)
- tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter)
Saturated fat has been shown to increase blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, which can increase your risk for heart disease and possibly type 2 diabetes.
Short for “trans fatty acids,” trans fat appears in foods that contain “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils. You might find trans fat in:
- fried foods (French fries, doughnuts, deep-fried fast foods)
- margarine (stick and tub)
- vegetable shortening
- baked goods (cookies, cakes, pastries)
- processed snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn)
Like saturated fat, trans fat can raise LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Trans fat can also suppress high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, or “good” cholesterol.
What are Good Fats?
Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are considered more “heart-healthy” fats, which you should include in your diet in moderation. Foods that primarily contain these healthier fats tend to be liquid when they’re at room temperature, such as vegetable oil.
Foods with Good Fats
This type of helpful fat is present in a variety of foods and oils. Research has consistently shown that eating foods that contain monounsaturated fat can improve your blood cholesterol level and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. These foods include:
- nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans)
- vegetable oils (olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil)
- peanut butter and almond butter
Plant-based foods and oils are the primary source of this fat. Like monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat can decrease your risk of heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels.
A certain type of this fat, called omega-3 fatty acids, have been shown to be particularly beneficial for your heart. Omega-3s not only appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, but also may help lower blood pressure levels and guard against irregular heartbeats. The following types of fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids:
You can also find omega-3s in flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil, although these contain a less active form of the fat than fish do, according to according to Stanford Hospital and Clinics.
In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, you can find polyunsaturated fat in the following foods which contain omega-6 fatty acids:
- roasted soy beans and soy nut butter
- seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds)
- vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil)
- soft margarine (liquid or tub)
Though healthier fats are an important part of your diet, the Mayo Clinic warns that it’s still crucial to moderate your consumption of them, due to the high caloric content of all fats. Try replacing unhealthy fats with healthy fats when possible.
First, work on reducing foods in your diet that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Then, make an effort to incorporate foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It’s a strategy that will help your heart and improve your quality of life.