Weighing In on Dietary Fats
Learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats in your foods.

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Weighing In on Dietary Fats

Fats have gotten a bad rap. The truth is, certain types of fats are good for you - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to be specific. One such fat, omega-3, has benefits for the brain and heart.

But it's important to realize that while certain fats are healthy, all fats are high in calories. Even "good" fats should be consumed in moderation.

The key: Eat just enough of the right fats. Limit or avoid the unhealthy ones. Here's a guide to help.

Healthy fats
Monounsaturated fats
come from plants. They include olive, peanut and canola oil. Nuts, olives and avocados are high in monounsaturated fats. These fats are among the healthiest. They may lower your risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats consist of two types: omega-3 and omega-6. Both are essential fats. We must get them from our diet.

Omega-3s are found in cold-water fish like salmon, albacore tuna (canned and fresh), lake trout, sardines and mackerel, as well as flax seeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts. There's some evidence these fats may reduce the risk of heart disease and may help deter memory loss.

Omega-6s can be found in some vegetable oils: corn, safflower, soy and sunflower oils.

Unhealthy fats
Saturated fats
come mainly from animal sources. They tend to be solid at room temperature. These include red meat, dark poultry with skin, whole milk and butter. Saturated fats raise total blood cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. They may raise the risk of heart disease.

Some tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil, also are saturated.

Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are "hydrogenated" into solid margarine and shortening. They can be found in some fried foods, snack foods and bakery goods. Trans fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats. They raise bad LDL and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. They should be avoided as part of a healthy diet.

Choose the right fats
Replacing saturated fats with healthier fats may lower your risk for heart disease. How to choose the right ones and avoid the others? Follow these tips:

  • Check labels to avoid trans (hydrogenated) fats.
  • Avoid full-fat dairy, fatty meats and fast food like pizza and hot dogs to reduce saturated fat.
  • Try good sources of protein like beans, skinless poultry, fish and nuts to replace red meat.
  • Cook with olive or canola oil instead of butter.
  • Eat fatty fish such as salmon, trout, herring or mackerel twice a week.
  • Snack on small amounts of peanut butter on apple slices or whole-grain toast. Tip: If oil has collected at the top of the jar, mix it right back in. It's heart-healthy!
By Margie Schmidt, Contributing Writer
Created on 02/05/2002
Updated on 09/10/2014
  • American Heart Association. Omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eat healthy fats.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010.
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