Fats haven’t always had the best reputation. The ’90s brought on a wave of low-fat and fat-free products along with a diet craze centered on avoiding fats at all cost. However, all fats are not created equal. Fats directly affect your blood cholesterol levels, and the right kinds of fat can aid in weight management. It can be challenging to sort through all of the information on each type of fat. With that in mind, we’ve created a pocket guide to help you navigate the most important fats.
Friendly Fats: Meet Mono- and Poly-
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are commonly referred to as “good fats.” Why? Because they’re the multi-tasker fats. They have a variety of different functions in the body in addition to providing you with energy.
Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats positively impact your cholesterol levels. They help lower your LDL (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) and can help increase your HDL (a.k.a. good cholesterol). They’re known as heart-healthy fats because maintaining proper cholesterol levels will reduce your risk of heart disease.
When looking to include healthy unsaturated fats in your diet, add olive oil, expeller-pressed canola oil, nuts, nut butter (be sure to get the kind that’s made just from nuts), seeds, avocados and olives.
Not-So-Friendly Saturated Fats
Saturated fats should be enjoyed in moderation because they can increase LDL levels. As a general rule of thumb, the more saturated fat you eat, the more LDL your body makes. In addition, saturated fats aren’t multi-taskers like the good fats. They have very few functions in the body except to provide you with energy.
While mono- and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil are liquid at room temperature, saturated fats like butter are solid at room temperature. This is an easy way to tell the difference. Most saturated fats are found in animal products, like red meat, cheese, sour cream and butter. Even dark meat poultry with skin has a surprising amount of saturated fat. Now here’s a tricky example: Have you ever opened a can of coconut milk? The solid block at the top is saturated fat. There are a few plant sources of saturated fat, such as palm oil and coconut oil.
To eat less saturated fat, try vegetarian options. Plant proteins such as tofu and beans, are very low in saturated fat and contain a good dose of healthy fats.
Trans fats not only raise your LDL cholesterol, but they also lower your HDL cholesterol. In addition, they’ve been linked to many health problems, a few of which include heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
While some high-fat animal products like red meat contain naturally occurring trans fats, most trans fats are synthetically made through a process called hydrogenation. During this process, an unsaturated fat is artificially turned into a more solid and shelf-stable form by adding hydrogen. This process is great for food companies because it creates tasty products with a longer shelf life. The problem is that the hydrogenated oil (trans fat) is now in a form that more readily sticks to your blood vessel walls than any other type of fat.
To avoid trans fats, check the ingredients list. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated” or “fully hydrogenated,” that food contains trans fats even if the nutrtition label lists “0 grams” of trans fat. Be wary of tricky labeling. Packages are allowed to advertise 0 grams trans fat if a product has 0.5 grams or less.
Common foods with trans fats include margarine, crackers, chips and packaged cookies or baked goods.
Navigating the Label
When you see “Total Fat” on a nutrition label, it’s referring to all of the different kinds of fats that are in that food (both good and bad fats). Included is a breakdown of each kind of fat and the amount it contributes to the total.
How do you know how much fat is too much? A useful trick for navigating the label is to use the 5/20 rule. If a percentage on the nutrition label is 5%, it’s considered a small amount. If the percentage is closer to 20%, this is considered a large amount. For example, if a label has 20% saturated fat, this means the food item contains a large dose of saturated fat and should be enjoyed in moderation.
This blog post was originally published on September 20, 2013, and was last updated on January 18, 2017.