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The Skinny on Fat: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

How fats fit into your healthy diet.
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Good Fats vs. Bad Fats continued...

The other "good guy" unsaturated fats are monounsaturated fats, thought to reduce the risk of heart disease. Mediterranean countries consume lots of these -- primarily in the form of olive oil -- and this dietary component is credited with the low levels of heart disease in those countries.

Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but solidify if refrigerated. These heart-healthy fats are typically a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E, a nutrient often lacking in American diets. They can be found in olives; avocados; hazelnuts; almonds; Brazil nuts; cashews; sesame seeds; pumpkin seeds; and olive, canola, and peanut oils.

The 'Bad' Fats in Your Diet

Now on to the bad guys. There are two types of fat that should be eaten sparingly: saturated and trans fatty acids. Both can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease.

Saturated fats are found in animal products (meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy, and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as coconut and palm oils. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to 10% or less of your total calories, while the American Heart Association recommends keeping them to just 7% of total calories.

Lichtenstein recommends using liquid vegetable oils in place of animal or partially hydrogenated fats.

"There is evidence that saturated fats have an effect on increasing colon and prostate cancer risk, so we recommend whenever possible to choose healthy unsaturated fats -- and always strive to be at a healthy weight," Doyle explains.

We're also hearing a lot these days about trans fatty acids, or trans fats. There are two types of trans fats: the naturally occurring type, found in small amounts in dairy and meat; and the artificial kind that occur when liquid oils are hardened into "partially hydrogenated" fats.

Natural trans fats are not the type of concern, especially if you choose low-fat dairy products and lean meats. The real worry in the American diet is the artificial trans fats. They're used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some margarines.

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