Choosing Healthy Fats

Closeup view from above of a woman eating brazil nuts

Dietary fat has gotten a bad reputation. Low-fat, reduced fat, and fat-free foods are marketed as being heathier for us. Some are, and some aren’t. But the fact is, your body needs fat to survive. Fat, along with protein and carbohydrates, provides energy in the form of calories. It also works to store extra calories, maintain healthy skin and hair, and insulate the body. However, eating too much fat can lead to obesity and extra weight and raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers.

But not all fats are the same. Although we need fat in our diet, we should eat fats in moderation and choose them wisely: some fats are “good,” while others are “bad.” Here’s what you need to know:

  • Unsaturated fats are “good” fats found mainly in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. At room temperature, these fats are liquid, not solid. There are two broad categories of good fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Find them in most nuts, soy products, olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, tuna, and salmon.
  • Saturated fats are the “bad” kind and are found in meat and other animal products, such as butter, cheese, and all milk except skim. They are often solid at room temperature. Some oils, such as palm and coconut oils, are also high in saturated fats, and are often used in baked goods you buy at the store. 
  • Trans fats are the worst type of dietary fat. It’s found naturally in small quantities in some animal products like red meat, cheese, and whole milk, but most trans fats that Americans eat are man-made using a process that turns liquid oils into solids. It’s found in stick and some other types of margarine, and also in certain snack foods that you buy at the store or in a restaurant, baked goods, and fried foods. If you see "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils on an ingredient list, the food contains trans fats, even if the nutrition label says “0 grams.”

The American Heart Association recommends cutting back on trans fat and making saturated fat only 5% to 6% of total daily calories. For example, if you eat about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of these calories should come from saturated fat. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day.             

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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