Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: How to Tell?

Just the name fat suggests something to avoid. After all, aren’t we all trying not to have too much of it? But when we’re talking about fat in food, it’s a different story. Our bodies need fat for energy, nutrient absorption, blood clotting, and to protect the brain and central nervous system. But for these purposes, some fats are better than others. Here’s a guide to the fats you need to eat more of, and those to avoid.

Good Fats: Unsaturated

Found mainly in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish, unsaturated fats can actually help lower your cholesterol and prevent heart disease. You can recognize unsaturated fats because they remain liquid at room temperature.

There are three main categories of beneficial fats:

  1. monounsaturated
  2. polyunsaturated
  3. omega-3 fatty acids

Corn, safflower, soybean, sesame and sunflower oil are common polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, avocados, nuts, and in oils pressed from these foods including olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil.

Omega-3 fats come from fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts and other nuts. Eating a plant-based diet is a great way to make sure you are getting plenty of these healthy fats.

Bad Fats: Saturated and “Trans”

There are also two main kinds of “bad” fat. Of these, the man-made fats known as “trans” fats are the worst, and have been banned from most foods in the U.S.

Saturated fat, while not as bad, is unhealthy eaten in large quantities, as it is in the typical American diet. Saturated fats are those that harden at room temperature; think butter, bacon grease, Crisco. Red meat, cheese, and whole-milk dairy products are high in saturated fat, and many commercial baked goods such as crackers, chips and cookies contain saturated fat as well.

Saturated fat is a common culprit behind heart disease because it drives up cholesterol and in particular the “bad” LDL cholesterol, leading to clogged arteries. Most experts advise limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your total calories.

For more in-depth information on how to incorporate healthy fats into your diet, research which foods to eat, take a class on healthy eating, or consult a nutritionist.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.