Not all fats are created equal. You’ve likely heard of good fats and bad fats, healthy fats and unhealthy fats, saturated fats and unsaturated fats. what do all these terms mean?
The fat found in food, often referred to as dietary fat, or simply fat, is an essential part of your diet. Fat provides your body with energy and helps it absorb vitamins from the foods you eat. There are two main types of dietary fat: saturated fats and unsaturated fats. We’ll discuss both, in addition to trans fats, below.
Saturated fats are stable fats that are solid at room temperature. They are solid is because their chemical structure is comprised of all single bonds, no double bonds.
Foods that contain saturated fats include:
- Hot dogs
- Ice cream
- Packaged snack foods
- Palm oil
- Coconut oil
Within the category of saturated fats, there are multiple subtypes. One way to classify saturated fats is by the length of the molecule. There are short, medium, long, and very long-chain saturated fatty acids. We’ll discuss these a bit more below.
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature because their chemical structure contains at least one double bond.
Foods that contain unsaturated fats include:
- Nut butters
- Fatty fish
- Avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Peanut oil
To get a little more specific, there are multiple types of unsaturated fats including monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats contain only one double bond whereas polyunsaturated fats contain multiple double bonds.
To break it down one step further, there are a few types of polyunsaturated fats. Omegas, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, are some of the most discussed polyunsaturated fats. Within this category, you will find specific fatty acids including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). We’ll dive more into the health effects of these fats later.
Trans fats are another type of fat that are often manufactured by the food industry, but seldom occur naturally. However, trans fats are found in some common foods. Trans fats are liquid fats that are converted to solid fats during food processing. This is done to stabilize and extend the shelf-life of products containing these fats.
Foods that contain trans fats include:
- Fried foods
- Packaged snack foods
- Commercial baked goods
- Hydrogenated oils
Fitting Fat into Your Diet
As I shared earlier, fat is an essential part of your diet, and something you should be including daily. A general goal is for between 20 and 35 percent of your total daily calories to come from fat. However, for optimal health, experts suggest that most of your fat intake should come from unsaturated fats. Current guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to less than ten percent of your daily calories and minimizing trans fats entirely. These recommendations are based on the effects each type of fat has on your own health.
Saturated Fats & Health
Saturated fats are generally considered “unhealthy” fats. However, there is some controversy surrounding how unhealthy saturated fats may be.
To dive deeper into this controversy, many studies show that consuming large amounts of saturated fats increases your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is often referred to as your “bad cholesterol.” Elevated LDL levels increase your risk of heart attack and strokes. However, other studies show that not all LDL is bad and may not entirely be tied to an increased risk of heart disease.
One argument that emerged recently is that not all saturated fats are created equal, so it isn’t accurate to label the entire category as either healthy or unhealthy. One study suggested that medium-chain triglycerides, a subtype of saturated fats found in coconut oil, are the most healthful type of saturated fat.
At this point, the recommendation to limit saturated fats to less than ten percent of daily calories still stands. As more research is done in this area, those recommendations may change.
Unsaturated Fats & Health
Unsaturated fats are generally recognized as good, healthy fats with most of their benefits focusing on heart health. There isn’t any controversy here, so including these foods in your diet is recommended.
Monounsaturated fats help increase your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, often referred to as your “good cholesterol.” This benefits your heart and blood vessels, while reducing your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Polyunsaturated fats have a variety of benefits including reducing LDL cholesterol levels, supporting overall heart health, and reducing inflammation in your body. Polyunsaturated fats also benefit your brain and nervous system. Omega-3 fatty acids specifically help lower your risk of developing heart disease.
Trans Fats & Health
Trans fats are also generally considered to be unhealthy fats. These fats increase your LDL cholesterol and decrease your HDL cholesterol, two unfavorable changes for overall health. Trans fats also create inflammation. These changes increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and even type 2 diabetes.
Tips For Healthier Fat Consumption
By now it’s clear that you want to include fats in your diet. Use these tips to do so in the healthiest way.
- Focus on heart-healthy unsaturated fats as often as possible.
- When possible, use oils, including olive and avocado oil, in place of butter or margarine.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and skinless poultry. Trim visible fat and skin when you can.
- Include fatty fish, especially salmon, in your weekly meal rotation.
- Bake, steam, grill, or roast with small amounts of healthier oils instead of frying.
- Opt for whole foods over processed foods.
- When consuming processed foods read the nutrition facts label to evaluate the amount of saturated and trans fats they contain. Pick items with lower quantities of both these nutrients.
- Read the ingredients lists of packages foods, and limit foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats.
Stay realistic! While some foods may contain less healthy fats, they may contain other beneficial nutrients. Be sure to evaluate the food as a whole and make the best choice for you. If you need help doing so, our team of dietitians and nutritionists can help!
Liz has been reading nutrition labels since she learned how to read. Growing up with severe peanut and tree nut allergies she learned that it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. She made her first big lifestyle change as a freshman in high school, when she decided to become a vegetarian. However, it wasn’t until she took a food class in Italy as part of a study abroad program in college that it clicked in her mind that she wanted to make food and nutrition her career. Liz graduated from Penn State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, as well as a bachelor's degree in Marketing. She completed her dietetic internship with Aramark in Philadelphia, and her master's degree at Northeastern University shortly after.