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A guide to fats

Fat has a bad reputation.

Not that it hasn't earned it. Fat can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

But fat does some good things too. It's a significant source of energy. It also helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D and E. Even the American Heart Association (AHA) acknowledges that fat offers a number of benefits for the body.

So you definitely need some fat in your diet. But it's important to choose the right types and amounts of fat.

Fat comes in many forms.

There are solid fats, like butter, chicken fat and stick margarine.

Oils are fats too—fats that are liquid at room temperature. Oil fats often come from plants, like olives or soybeans. They're also found in certain types of fish.

Unhealthy fats

Some fats are also healthier than others, according to the AHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Unhealthy fats, such as saturated fat and trans fat, are hard on your heart.

Saturated fat is the type of fat that remains solid at room temperature. Solid fats often come from animal sources, but not always. Some tropical plant oils—such as coconut oil or palm kernel oil—are high in saturated fats, according to the USDA. In addition to those noted above, foods high in saturated fat include high-fat dairy products, animal fat and baked goods made with ingredients high in saturated fat.

Too much saturated fat in the diet can raise your risk for heart disease. The USDA recommends that less than 10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. That's less than 200 calories, or 20 grams, if you eat 2,000 calories a day.

Trans fat is generally man-made. It occurs when liquid vegetable oil is changed into a solid through a process called hydrogenation. Some margarines and shortenings are high in trans fats. Trans fat can raise your risk for heart disease. In fact, some nutritional experts think trans fats may cause even more harm than saturated ones.

Starting in June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began restricting partially hydrogenated oils—the main source of artificial trans fat—from the food supply.

Healthier fats

Healthier fats include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

When eaten as part of a healthy diet, these two fats may even help the heart by lowering blood cholesterol levels, according to the AHA.

Both of these fats come mostly from oils in plants, like canola, olive, safflower, soybean and corn oils. They also can be found in certain fish—such as salmon, trout and herring—as well as some nuts.

Most of the fat you eat—which shouldn't exceed 25% to 35% of your daily total calories—should come from these sources, according to the AHA.

Improving your diet

Limiting unhealthy fats in your diet doesn't mean you have to quit eating your favorite foods. You just need to be aware of the fat content of the foods you're eating and seek a healthy balance throughout the day.

For example, if breakfast was high in unhealthy fats, you can make adjustments at lunch and dinner. You might also be able to choose a low-fat version of some of your favorite foods.

Reading the nutrition facts label can help. It can tell you how much of any type of fat is in one serving of a food. Also, look at the percent daily values (DV) per serving. A general rule of thumb: 5% DV or less is low; 20% DV or more is high. (There is no DV for trans fat.)

Other tips for healthy eating:

  • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Look for cuts of meat labeled "lean."
  • Trim excess fat from meat and poultry.
  • Remove skin from poultry before cooking.
  • Choose cooking methods lower in fat, such as baking, broiling or steaming (as opposed to frying).
  • Choose soft margarine that has no trans fats.
  • Limit processed foods, especially those made with partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Limit fast foods, particularly those that are fried.

Reviewed 8/7/2023

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