There are four main kinds of fats in the foods we eat: saturated, unsaturated, cholesterol, and trans fats. Saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol in foods can raise blood cholesterol levels. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack and stroke. A balanced diet can help to reduce these risks.
Most foods often have more than one type of fat. Generally, foods that have mostly saturated fat are thicker, like butter, lard, or cream. Those that are mostly unsaturated are thinner, like oils. A heart healthy diet limits saturated fats and trans fats.
The body needs saturated fatty acids, but most eat and drink more than we need. Some foods high in saturated fat are:
Saturated fatty acids are also found in oils like coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm. Oils high in saturated fats will be semi-solid at room temperature.
Many snack foods and fried foods have a lot of saturated fat. Check the Nutrition Facts label to find out how much is in a food. Look for oils listed above in the ingredient list.
Most people do no need to completely avoid these foods. However, they should be eaten in smaller portions or as occasional treats. Your goal should be to get fewer than 10% of your calories per day from saturated fats. There may also be low-fat versions of these foods. Look for lower fat dairy or lean cuts of meat.
Add naturally lower-fat foods into your regular diet. For example, have fruit and gingersnaps for dessert instead of ice cream. Try eating fish and vegetarian-based dinners a few times a week in place of meat.
Trans fats are made through a process called hydrogenation. This process takes a vegetable oil, which is naturally high in unsaturated fatty acids, and adds hydrogen molecules. This makes it more solid. They are linked to higher bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats are cheap and can make food taste good and add texture. They are used in many processed snack foods. Foods that may contain trans fats include:
Look in your pantry and check for trans fats listed on the Nutrition Facts food label. You may also see hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil listed as ingredients. This means the food contains trans fat and should be avoided if possible.
Cholesterol is found only in animal foods. Our bodies need some cholesterol, but we often take in more than we need. Cholesterol that we eat may play a much smaller role in blood cholesterol levels than we used to think. It also has less effect than saturated and trans fats do. Still, you should be aware of how much cholesterol is in your diet. Your doctor may also ask you to limit cholesterol if you have certain health issues.
Saturated fat and cholesterol are often found together in animal-based foods. Limiting these foods may help to lower blood cholesterol levels. Choosing foods with unsaturated fats can also help.
You can feel good about eating unsaturated fats in the right amounts. They still have as many calories as saturated fats, so portion sizes do matter. There are two types of unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Many familiar foods contain polyunsaturated fats. Some of these are:
Monounsaturated fats are similar and can also be used instead of less healthy fats. You will find them in olive, canola, peanut, and sesame oils, in many seeds, and in avocados. Some foods contain both types of fats. Change takes time, so go slowly and make small tweaks to get started. Think about switching out some snacks or saturated fats with unsaturated choices such as:
There are many choices you can make. It may take a few tries to find what works for you.
Since both the saturated fat in butter and the trans fat in margarine can raise cholesterol levels, which is the best one to eat? There is no clear answer to this question. Remember that softer is better when choosing your spread. Whipped butter has less saturated fat than regular solid butter. Also, soft margarine in a tub has less unhealthy fat. Consider using an oil-based spread (like olive oil) instead of using butter or margarine.
You can also make easy changes when cooking or baking. Try liquid vegetable oils like canola, safflower, soybean, or olive instead of butter or margarine. Remember that whatever you choose, make sure that you limit the amount of fat you are adding to your food.
American Heart Association
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Heart and Stroke Association of Canada
2015-2020 Dietary guidelines for Americans. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/executive-summary/. Accessed November 28, 2020.
About cholesterol. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/About-Cholesterol_UCM_001220_Article.jsp. Accessed November 28, 2020.
Dietary interventions for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115449/Dietary-interventions-for-cardiovascular-disease-prevention. Accessed November 28, 2020.
Monounsaturated fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp. Accessed November 28, 2020.
Polyunsaturated fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Polyunsaturated-Fats_UCM_301461_Article.jsp. Accessed November 28, 2020.
Trans fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Trans-Fats_UCM_301120_Article.jsp. Accessed November 28, 2020.
What are solid fats? United States Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/what-are-solid-fats. Accessed November 28, 2020.
Last reviewed November 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board