Book health & wellness appointments instantly

Dietary Fats

A primer on “good” fats, “bad” fats, and everything in between.

By Zeel Editorial Staff, Last updated: August 9, 2016


What is it?

The very name—fat—gives this notorious nutrient a bad rep. But there are several different kinds of dietary fat, and some are actually good for you.

Natural fats, those that come from flora and fauna, are packed with healthy nutrients. Some familiar fatty ingredients are lard, fish oil, butter, peanuts, soy beans, sunflower seeds, coconut, and olives.

Fat that is processed in factories, like margarine and vegetable oil, are the ones that should raise a red flag.

What's the difference?

Chemically, most fats are insoluble in water. Your body breaks them down using specialized enzymes produced in the pancreas. In general, “bad” fats are those that raise your cholesterol levels, and “good” fats lower them.

Fat can be separated into three categories: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. A single food can contain more than one type of fat. A balanced diet consists of 25 to 35 percent fat, though only a fraction of that amount should come from saturated fat. None of it should come from trans fat.

Is cholesterol a type of fat?

Often thought of as a “cousin” of dietary fat, cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s excreted by the liver. Like fat, there is a difference between good and bad cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is otherwise known as “good cholesterol.” Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad kind.

Simply enough, bad LDLs clog your blood vessels and obstruct blood flow, while good HDLs actually cleanse the vessels and promote blood flow.

The Good

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are often abundant with vital nutrients, including antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, which boost your immune system, soften your skin, and strengthen your blood vessels. Adding unsaturated fat to your diet (in reasonable amounts) can lower your risk of heart disease by lowering your cholesterol count.

Monounsaturated fat

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are found in oils and in plants, like canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados. Olive oil is an especially rich source of this healthy fat. MUFAs can help keep cholesterol levels moderate.

Polyunsaturated fat

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are found in oils, nuts, fish, and plants and contain essential fatty acids that the body needs. They can lower cholesterol levels and decrease heart disease. Sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, corn, soybeans, nuts, cottonseed oil, and fish are loaded with PUFAs.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They are particularly beneficial for your heart and decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. Omega-3’s are found in coldwater fish like salmon (wild, not farm-raised), as well as flax oil and walnuts. They boost your immune and nervous systems. Omega-3’s are also an anti-inflammatory and help moisten, and therefore smooth your skin.

Don’t confuse Omega-3 fatty acids with Omega-6 or Omega-9 fatty acids. While the body requires omega-6 fatty acids, Americans tend to get too much Omega-6, certain types of which can promote inflammation.

The Bad (and really bad)

Saturated fat

Saturated fat is mostly found in animals, like beef, veal, lamb, pork, and poultry. Foods that contain saturated fat from plants include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter.

Not all saturated fat is bad for you. In fact, consuming only low or non-fat dairy products can actually deprive your body of many essential vitamins.

Take, for example, butter. This cow-derived fat is packed with antioxidants, vitamin A, D, and E, and Omega-3's—nutrients that stabilize your nervous system and make your skin smooth, your hair shiny, and your nails strong. The best kind to buy is organic raw butter (though even non-organic butter is healthier than margarine and vegetable oils&mfash;these are highly processed and are extremely bad for you). If possible, find butter that comes from grass-fed cows.

Lard has its advantages too. This natural, porcine fat contains 40 percent saturated fat (that’s half the level of coconut oil) and 45 percent monounsaturated fat.

Saturated fat found in cookies and crackers, on the other hand, is the kind that should worry you. These tend to be made with processed forms of saturated fat, making them generally unhealthy.

The key to consuming saturated fats is portion control, because too much of this artery-clogging fat will increase your cholesterol and contributes to heart disease. When consumed sparingly, saturated fats may not be so bad. Your diet should consist of no more than 16 grams of saturated fat a day.

Find expert nutritionists near you