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Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
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Choosing Healthy Fats
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For years, nutritionists and
doctors have preached that a lowfat diet is the key to losing
weight, managing cholesterol, and
preventing health problems. But
more than just the amount of fat,
it’s the types of fat you eat that
really matter. Bad fats increase
cholesterol and your risk of
certain diseases, while good fats
protect your heart and support overall health. In fact, good fats—such as
omega-3 fats—are essential to physical and emotional health.
Making sense of dietary fat
Types of dietary fat
General guidelines
Saturated fats
Trans fats
Good, unsaturated fats
Omega-3 fatty acids
Dietary fat and cholesterol
Exercise & Fitness
Healthy Eating
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Making sense of dietary fat
A walk down the grocery aisle will confirm our obsession with low-fat foods. We’re bombarded with
supposedly guilt-free options: baked potato chips, fat-free ice cream, low-fat candies, cookies, and cakes.
But while our low-fat options have exploded, so have obesity rates. Clearly, low-fat foods and diets haven’t
delivered on their trim, healthy promises.
Despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the waistline wars. Bad fats, such as
saturated fats and trans fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain,
clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as the monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and
omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods,
stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
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As a matter of fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your
mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
The answer isn’t cutting out the fat—it’s learning to make healthy choices and to replace bad fats with good
ones that promote health and well-being.
Myths and facts about fats
Myth: All fats are equal—and equally bad for you.
Fact: Saturated fats and trans fats are bad for you because they raise your cholesterol and increase your
risk for heart disease. But monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, lowering
cholesterol and reducing your risk of heart disease.
Myth: Lowering the amount of fat you eat is what matters the most.
Fact: The mix of fats that you eat, rather than the total amount in your diet, is what matters most when
it comes to your cholesterol and health. The key is to eat more good fats and less bad fats.
Myth: Fat-free means healthy.
Fact: A “fat-free” label doesn’t mean you can eat all you want without consequences to your waistline.
Many fat-free foods are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and calories.
Myth: Eating a low-fat diet is the key to weight loss.
Fact: The obesity rates for Americans have doubled in the last 20 years, coinciding with the low-fat
revolution. Cutting calories is the key to weight loss, and since fats are filling, they can help curb
Myth: All body fat is the same.[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
Fact: Where you carry your fat matters. The health risks are greater if you tend to carry your weight
around your abdomen, as opposed to your hips and thighs. A lot of belly fat is stored deep below the
skin surrounding the abdominal organs and liver, and is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Types of dietary fat: Good fats vs. bad fats
To understand good and bad fats, you need to know the names of the players and some information about
them. There are four major types of fats:
monounsaturated fats
polyunsaturated fats
saturated fats
trans fats
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good
for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health.
Monounsaturated fat
Polyunsaturated fat
Olive oil
Soybean oil
Canola oil
Corn oil
Sunflower oil
Safflower oil
Peanut oil
Sesame oil
Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring,
trout, sardines)
Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts,
hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
Peanut butter
Saturated fats and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and
elevate cholesterol.
Appearance-wise, saturated fats and trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think of butter or
traditional stick margarine), while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid (think of olive
or corn oil).
Saturated fat
High-fat cuts of meat (beef, lamb, pork)
Chicken with the skin
Whole-fat dairy products (milk and cream)
Ice cream
Palm and coconut oil
Trans fat
Commercially-baked pastries, cookies,
doughnuts, muffins, cakes, pizza dough
Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave
popcorn, chips)
Stick margarine
Vegetable shortening
Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken,
chicken nuggets, breaded fish)
Candy bars
General guidelines for choosing healthy fats
With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing. But
the bottom line is simple: don’t go no-fat, go good fat.[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing
saturated fats and trans fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans
and legumes, or using olive oil rather than butter.
Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commerciallybaked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.
Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try
replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole
milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.
Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil,
canola oil, and soybean oil.
How much fat is too much?
How much fat is too much depends on your lifestyle, your weight, your age, and most importantly the state
of your health. The USDA recommends that the average individual:
Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories
Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)
Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
Get your personalized daily fat limits
See Resources and References section below for an easy-to-use tool from the American Heart Association
that calculates your personalized daily calorie needs, recommended range for total fats, and limits for
trans fats and saturated fats.
Saturated fats: Reduce this bad fat
When focusing on healthy fats, a good place to start is reducing your consumption of saturated fats.
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as red meat and whole milk dairy products. Poultry
and fish also contain saturated fat, but less than red meat. Other sources of saturated fat include tropical
vegetable oils such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Simple ways to reduce saturated fat
Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and more fish and chicken
Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.
Bake, broil, or grill instead of frying.
Remove the skin from chicken and trim as much fat off of meat as possible before cooking.
Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.
Choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in
Use liquid vegetable oils such as olive oil or canola oil instead of lard, shortening, or butter.
Avoid cream and cheese sauces, or have them served on the side.
Sources of Saturated Fats
Healthier Options
Olive oil
Low-fat or reduced-fat cheese
Red meat
White meat chicken or turkey
Low-fat milk or fat-free creamer
Egg whites, an egg substitute (e.g. Eggbeaters), or tofu
Ice cream
Frozen yogurt or reduced fat ice cream
Whole milk
Skim or 1% milk
Sour cream
Plain, non-fat yogurt[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
Eliminate trans fats from your diet
A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called
hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially
hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food
manufacturers—and very bad for you.
No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to
Sources of trans fats
Many people think of margarine when they picture trans fats, and it’s true that some margarines are loaded
with them. However, the primary source of trans fats in the Western diet comes from commercially-prepared
baked goods and snack foods:
Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like
hamburger buns
Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn
Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening
Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix
Be a trans fat detective
When shopping, read the labels and watch out for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients.
Even if the food claims to be trans fat free, this ingredient makes it suspect.
With margarine, choose the soft-tub versions, and make sure the product has zero grams of trans fat
and no partially hydrogenated oils.
When eating out, put fried foods, biscuits, and other baked goods on your “skip” list. Avoid these
products unless you know that the restaurant has eliminated trans fat.
Avoid fast food. Most states have no labeling regulations for fast food, and it can even be advertised
as cholesterol-free when cooked in vegetable oil.
When eating out, ask your server or counter person what type of oil your food will be cooked in. If
it’s partially hydrogenated oil, run the other way or ask if your food can be prepared using olive oil,
which most restaurants have in stock.
Getting more good, unsaturated fats in your diet
Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats everyone keeps talking about?
The best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and
Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard.
For baking, try canola or vegetable oil.
Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded
with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.
Reach for the nuts. You can also add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs
on chicken or fish.
Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat
foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own. Try them plain or make a
tapenade for dipping.
Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with
damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil,
flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.
Damaged fat: When good fats go bad
A good fat can become bad if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Polyunsaturated fats are the most fragile.
Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
opaque container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they
begin to smell or taste rank or bitter.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Superfats for the brain and heart
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. While all types of monounsaturated and
polyunsaturated fats are good for you, omega-3 fats are proving to be especially beneficial.
We’re still learning about the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but research has shown that they can:
Prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression
Protect against memory loss and dementia
Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer
Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions
Support a healthy pregnancy
Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health
Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain. Research indicates that they play a vital role in
cognitive function (memory, problem-solving abilities, etc.) as well as emotional health.
Getting more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can help you battle fatigue, sharpen your memory, and
balance your mood. Studies have shown that omega-3s can be helpful in the treatment of depression,
attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder.
There are several different types of omega-3 fatty acids:
EPA and DHA – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have the most
research to back up their health benefits. Both are found in abundance in cold-water fatty fish.
ALA – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plants. Studies suggest that it’s a less potent form of
omega-3 than EPA and DHA. The best sources include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil.
Fish: The best food source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fats are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning they are essential to health, but your body can’t
make them. You can only get omega-3 fats from food.
The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or high-quality
cold-water fish oil supplements. Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending
on how the fish were raised and processed.
Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins in fish. However,
most experts agree that the benefits of eating two servings a week of these cold-water fatty fish outweigh
the risks.
If you’re a vegetarian or you don’t like fish, you can still get your omega-3 fix by eating algae (which is high
in DHA) or taking a fish oil or algae supplement.
Choosing the best omega-3 supplement
With so many omega-3 and fish oil supplements and fortified foods, making the right choice can be tricky.
These guidelines can help.
Avoid products that don’t list the source of their omega-3s. Does the package list the source of
omega-3 fatty acids? If not, chances are it’s ALA (sometimes from plain old canola or soybean oil),
which most Westerners already get plenty of.
Don’t fall for fortified foods. Many fortified foods (such as margarine, eggs, and milk) claim to be
high in omega-3 fatty acids, but often, the real amount of omega-3 is miniscule.
Look for the total amount of EPA and DHA on the label. The bottle may say 1,000 milligrams of
fish oil, but it’s the amount of omega-3 that matters. Read the small print. It may show only 300 mg
of EPA and DHA (sometimes listed as “omega-3 fatty acids”), which means you’d have to take three
capsules to get close to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3.
Choose supplements that are mercury-free, pharmaceutical grade and molecularly distilled.
Make sure the supplement contains both DHA and EPA. They may be hard to find, but supplements[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
with higher concentrations of EPA are better.
Fish oil supplements can cause stomach upset and belching, especially when you first start taking them. To
reduce these side effects, take them with food. You may also want to start with a low dose and gradually
increase it, or divide the dose among your three meals.
How much omega-3 do I need?
The American Heart Association recommends consuming 1–3 grams per day of EPA and DHA (1 gram =
1,000 milligrams). For the treatment of mental health issues, including depression and ADHD, look for
supplements that are high in EPA, which has been shown to elevate and stabilize mood. Aim for at least
1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day.
The truth about dietary fat and cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself,
cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health.
Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body (specifically, the liver) produces some
of the cholesterol you need naturally. But you also get cholesterol directly from any animal products you eat,
such as eggs, meat, and dairy. Together, these two sources contribute to your blood cholesterol level.
Good vs. bad cholesterol
As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the "good" kind of
cholesterol found in your blood. LDL cholesterol is the "bad” kind. The key is to keep LDL levels low while,
conversely, low HDL can be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk. High levels of HDL cholesterol may
help protect against heart disease and stroke, while high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries,
increasing your risk.
Research shows that there is only a weak link between the amount of cholesterol you eat and your blood
cholesterol levels. The biggest influence on your total and LDL cholesterol is the type of fats you eat—not
your dietary cholesterol. So instead of counting cholesterol, simply focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.
Monounsaturated fats lower total and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, while increasing good cholesterol
Polyunsaturated fats lower triglycerides and fight inflammation.
Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol.
Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats, since they not only raise your bad LDL cholesterol, but
also lower the good HDL cholesterol.
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Resources & References
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Nutrition for Children and Teens – Simple steps to help your children develop better
eating habits and learn to enjoy healthy foods.[5/18/13 2:25:16 PM]
Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
Cooking & Eating Out
Eating Well on the Cheap – Get tips on how to stretch your food budget while still
making healthy choices.
Healthy Recipes – Instead of eating out, try making fast, delicious meals at home that
are easy to prepare and healthy to eat.
Cooking for One – Find meal ideas that make cooking for yourself as inexpensive as
eating at fast food restaurants—but much healthier.
Healthy Fast Food – Learn to make healthier choices and still enjoy the price and
convenience of fast–food restaurants.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Maya W. Paul, and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated:
December 2012.
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