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Ask a Dietitian: Good vs. Bad Fats

by Emily Goff, BS – Dietetic Intern

Q: I have heard that there are good fats and bad fats, but which is which and why?

A: Fats are a healthy part of a balanced diet. It helps us maintain healthy hair and skin, regulate body temperature and provide protection from injury. Yes, there are “good fats” and “bad fats.” As a rule of thumb plant fats are generally good and animal fats are bad. The term good or bad refers to how they affect blood cholesterol and heart disease, not the number of calories. All fats have 9 calories per gram no matter what type of fat it is.

  • Saturated fats: This is the type of fat that is typically solid at room temperature. It is found in animal sources like pork, beef and many snack foods. High intakes of saturated fat are linked with higher levels of LDL, which is the bad cholesterol that clogs arteries and leads to heart disease. Saturated is considered a “bad fat” and should be consumed in moderation. This is why it is important to choose lean cuts of meat.
  • Monounsaturated fat: This is a healthy fat that we get from plant sources like nuts, olives and avocado. These fats actually help improve cholesterol levels. It does this by increasing HDL, which is the good kind of cholesterol that keeps our arteries clean.
  • Polyunsaturated fat: This is another healthy fat. We find it mostly in vegetable oils, walnuts and fish. Omega 3 and Omega 6 are both polyunsaturated fats and are the only two essential fatty acids. This means that the body cannot make them, so we must get them from food. These fats help decrease cholesterol and improve brain function.
  • Trans Fat: This is the really bad fat. They are created when a manufacturer changes a liquid fat (oil) into a solid fat. This process is called hydrogenation, so hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats. Trans fats raise the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the good cholesterol (HDL), which raises the chance of heart disease.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that even if you ate the same amount of fat (same calories), a person that ate monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat instead of saturated or trans fat would have better cholesterol levels and a reduced chance of developing heart disease. So it important to know how to determine what kind of fat you are eating by reading nutrition facts labels.

What to look for:

  • Always look at the serving size first. This tells you how much food counts as a serving
  • Total fat includes saturated fat and trans fat numbers.
  • Subtract saturated fat and trans fat to get the amount of good fat in the product.
  • Anything with greater than 20% daily value is considered high fat
  • Remember that a higher % daily value is okay if it is a healthy fat.

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