Which Fats Are Good or Bad for Your Heart?

From the WebMD Archives

News flash: Fat is not the enemy. To stay well, and even to lose weight, you need to include some fat -- the right kind, and not too much -- in your diet. 

Fats keep each cell in your body working at its best. They make your skin smooth and your hair glossy. They even promote a healthy nervous system -- after all, your brain is composed of 65% fat!

Your heart needs some fat, too. Some kinds are better for your ticker than others.

The Good: Unsaturated Fats

These are the best kind to eat. ” They have many health benefits,” says nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD. She’s a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

These good fats help lower your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Some are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. 

Take this quick list to your supermarket:

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Avocado
  • Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, trout, albacore tuna -- fresh or canned)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts are just a few)
  • Seeds (chia, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and more)

Use these simple tips when you get your groceries home:

  • Eat fish twice a week.
  • Sprinkle walnuts on your salad or cereal.
  • Drizzle flaxseed oil on your salad.
  • Top your sandwich, salad, or soup with sliced avocado.
  • Choose natural peanut butter -- and mix the oil on top into the rest of the peanut butter.

It’s best to get your omega-3s through food, but if you don’t get enough in your diet, fish oil or krill oil supplements may help. Talk to your doctor about how to get enough daily omega-3s.

Limit Saturated Fats

These have a bad reputation. They raise your “bad” cholesterol.

They’re especially common in animal-based foods, like meat and full-fat dairy products. And those packaged cookies and cakes you love? Chances are, they’re loaded with saturated fats, too.

Check on items like these:

  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Poultry with skin
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Dairy products made with whole or reduced-fat milk
  • Lard
  • Baked goods
  • Fried foods
  • Tropical oils like palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil


Go easy on saturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting them to 5% to 6% of your daily calories. That’s less than 120 calories from saturated fat, if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet. 

Or, think of it this way: You need to keep your daily saturated fat to about 13 grams a day. That’s a teaspoon of butter, a cup of ice cream, and an ounce of cheddar cheese. Check the labels!

Instead, swap in unsaturated fats. You can also switch to lower-fat versions of your favorite full-fat foods. (Just don’t eat more of them to make up for it!)

Try these easy changes:

  • Have fish for dinner instead of red meat.
  • Chicken’s on the menu? Slip off the skin.
  • Try chili with beans instead of meat.
  • Cook with olive oil instead of butter. Or use less butter.
  • Snack on a handful of nuts instead of cheese.

Cooking Up Controversy

You may have heard about a report that found there’s not enough evidence to prove that cutting saturated fat lowers your risk of heart disease.

Not so fast. Don’t order an extra burger or slather more butter on your toast. Experts say the study was flawed and shouldn’t change the way we view saturated fat.

“This paper only added confusion, and the original conclusions have been retracted and reversed. Less is more when it comes to saturated fat,” says David S. Seres, MD, the director of medical nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center.


Trans Fats

Artificial trans fats keep packaged foods tasting good on store shelves for a long time. You’ll find them in fried foods, coffee creamers, margarine, cookies, crackers, frozen pizza, and many other products.

“Trans fatty acids are unhealthy and should be avoided altogether,” says Geeta Sikand, RD, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

Why? They raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol. They can also cause inflammation inside your body, Kris-Etherton says. Trans fats may be even worse for you than saturated fats. 

Your best defense against trans fats? Check beyond the food label.

If an item has less than 0.5 grams per serving, it may say “0 grams.” So you should also read the ingredients list. If you see “partially hydrogenated” items, that’s trans fat.

Watch the Big Picture

Fats definitely matter. But even more important is your overall diet.

Don’t obsess over fat grams. Instead, choose foods as close to nature as possible -- whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and nuts or seeds.

If you splurge on a high-fat food, adjust your diet to make up for it. And of course, if your doctor has given you rules about how much fat is too much, go with that.

Remember: Reading labels is a good thing, but whenever you can, pick foods that don’t have a label at all.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 27, 2015



Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, spokeswoman, American Heart Association.

David S. Seres, MD, ScM, PNS, director of medical nutrition, Columbia University Medical Center; associate professor of medicine, Institute of Human Nutrition, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Geeta Sikand, RDN, nutritionist, University of California Irvine College of Medicine.

Chowdhury, R. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2014.

American Heart Association: “Fats 101,” “Saturated Fats,” “Study raises questions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats,” “Trans Fats.”

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Choose Healthy Fats.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Study Says Heart-Healthy Diet Isn’t Only About the Fat.”

Gerard Mullin, author, The Gut Balance Revolution: Boost Your Metabolism, Restore Your Inner Ecology, and Lose the Weight for Good, Rodale, 2015.

American Heart Association, “Know Your Fats.”

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Dietary Guidelines for Amerians: Choose Sensibly.”

CDC: “Trans Fats: The Facts.”

American Heart Association, “Trans Fat Consumption Is Linked to Diminished Memory in Working Age Adults.”

Harvard School of Public Health, “Obesity Prevention Source: Food and Diet.”

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