Dietary fat may have a bad reputation, but fat isn’t always a bad thing. Your body actually needs fat for energy and to process certain vitamins and minerals.

For several decades, Americans grocery stores have been stocked with an assortment of fat-free and low-fat food products. Because fat is high in calories, eliminating it seemed like a good way to manage weight and improve health.

Unfortunately, added sugars and refined carbohydrates are often used to replace fat in processed foods. That adds up to a lot of extra calories with little-to-no nutritional value.

There is one bad fat that you should avoid. Trans fats have no nutritional value and are harmful to your health. They’re often found in processed snacks and baked goods.

In June of 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, are not “generally recognized as safe” to eat. Food manufacturers have three years to phase them out, a process that has already begun.

Two other types of dietary fat are saturated and unsaturated fat. Rather than trying to cut fat, you’ll be better off learning more about these two types of fat and how they affect your body.

Fats that are tightly packed are called saturated fats. There are some exceptions, but most are solid at room temperature.

Sources of saturated fat include:

  • red meat
  • some pork and chicken products
  • dairy products including butter, shortening, and cheese

A diet high in saturated fat may raise your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. This will raise your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Research shows that grass-fed beef may elevate cholesterol less than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed lean beef usually contains less fat.

The typical American diet is too high in saturated fats. Most of it is from pizza and cheese, followed by dairy and meat products.

Unsaturated fats are loosely packed. They tend to be liquid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats. They come from plants and are found in vegetables, olives, nuts, and seeds. Some fish also contain unsaturated fats.

There are two main types of unsaturated fats:

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats can help improve your cholesterol levels and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. It may also help you control your insulin levels and blood sugar.

Foods that contain monounsaturated fats are:

  • olive oil
  • peanut oil
  • canola oil
  • safflower oil
  • sunflower oil
  • avocados
  • most nuts
  • most seeds

Polyunsaturated fats

Your body needs polyunsaturated fats to function. This type of fat helps with muscle movement and blood clotting. Since your body doesn’t make it, you have to get it in your diet.

Polyunsaturated fats can be further divided into two types:

Omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial to the heart. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in:

  • fatty fish such as sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring
  • ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • unhydrogenated soybean oil
  • canola oil
  • walnuts
  • sunflower seeds
  • chia seeds
  • hemp seeds

Omega-6 fatty acids may also help protect against cardiovascular disease. But there is debate about the inflammatory role of omega-6’s. Most Americans consume more than enough omega-6’s. Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in:

  • safflower oil
  • soybean oil
  • sunflower oil
  • walnut oil
  • corn oil

Recent research reveals that there’s not enough evidence that saturated fat raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. But choosing polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fats can reduce the risk. That’s not the case if you replace saturated fat with sugar and processed carbohydrates.

People need fats, so you don’t have to do without them. But it’s clear you should eat saturated fats in moderation.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your daily calories. That translates to about 140 calories of a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Total fat intake should be between 25 and 35 percent.

Your body needs fats. The goal is not to cut out fats completely, but to eat healthier fats whenever you can.

Limit these foods:Replace them with these foods:
butter, stick margarine, and cream cheeseoil-based dressings and spreads
sour cream and ice creamlow-fat plain or Greek yogurt
whole milkskim or low-fat milk or plant milk (soy, almond, flax, hemp)
pizza, processed meats, fatty meats, fried chicken, or other skin-on chicken disheslean cuts of meat, poultry, seafood, and fish
desserts, baked goods, and processed snacksWhole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts

When cooking:

  • sauté with olive oil instead of butter, lard, or shortening
  • bake with canola, olive, or avocado oil
  • bake, broil, or grill seafood and poultry instead of frying

When you go grocery shopping, read nutrition labels carefully. Many foods contain both saturated and trans fats. Be cautious when buying reduced fat products. The fats are often replaced with something worse.

Check out: The health benefits of pumpkin seed oil »

Healthy eating starts with a diet rich in the following:

  • whole grains
  • legumes
  • vegetables
  • fruits

Eating too much fat is likely to make you gain weight. This can raise your risk of heart disease and other chronic health problems. But fat is part of a healthy diet. The trick is to favor the healthier fats over the less healthy fats.

To cut down on your total fat intake, it’s important to replace fat with healthy options rather than processed foods.

If you have high cholesterol, high triglycerides, or high blood pressure, talk to your doctor and dietitian about ways to improve your diet.

Keep reading: What the new fat guidelines mean for you »