Weighing In on Dietary Fats
Fats can be good for you! They are an important part of a healthy diet.

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Weighing In on Dietary Fats

Americans have been bombarded with warnings about fat. Many eat a low-fat diet. They drink low-fat milk, eat low-fat cheese and munch on reduced-fat chips.

But trimming fat hasn't helped our waistlines. In fact, for the first time, more American adults are obese (35.9 percent) than merely overweight (33.3 percent).

So what's the catch?

Fats in a nutshell
Despite the bad rap, certain types of fats are part of a healthy diet. Some fats are important in your diet — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to be specific. One such fat, omega-3 fatty acids, actually 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.

Fats provide energy. They also store energy. Fats are an important part of cell membranes. They play vital roles in our basic metabolism. Eating the right fats can help your heart and arteries. Eating good fats may cut the risk of some common diseases.

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

Monounsaturated fats include olive, peanut and canola oil. Almonds, olives, cashews and avocados are high in monounsaturated fats. These fats are among the healthiest. They may lower your risk of heart disease. When changing your diet, replace foods high in bad fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Try using olive oil instead of butter.

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, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seeds, flax 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 corn, safflower, soy and sunflower oils.

Saturated fats are found mainly in animal sources. These include red meat, dark poultry with skin, milk and butter. Some vegetable oils, such as coconut, palm kernel and palm oil, are saturated. Saturated fats raise total blood cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Many health authorities recommend you limit your saturated fat intake. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 states saturated fat should total less than 10 percent of your daily calories. Replacing saturated fats with healthier fats may lower your risk for heart disease by lowering your cholesterol.

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 good HDL.

Tips on choosing the right fats
Fats are complicated! 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, fast food and poultry skin to reduce saturated fat.
  • Try good sources of protein like beans, poultry, fish and nuts to replace red meat.
  • Cook with olive or canola oil.
  • Snack on small amounts of nuts or seeds. Or add them to low-fat yogurt or whole-grain cereal.
  • Spread avocado or natural peanut, almond or cashew butter on toast instead of margarine or butter.
  • Add a handful of olives, walnuts or diced avocado to a salad. Drizzle on olive oil.
  • Eat fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna or mackerel twice a week.

Healthy fats pay big benefits. But it's important to know that all fats are high in calories. The Institute of Medicine says an adult over age 19 should limit fat to no more than a third of daily calories.

Greg Breining contributed to this report.

By Margie Schmidt, Editor
Created on 02/05/2002
Updated on 11/06/2013
  • United States Food and Drug Administration. Using the nutrition facts label: A how-to guide for older adults.
  • Helpguide.org. Choosing healthy fats.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity and overweight.
  • United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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