Which Fats Are Good For You and Which Ones Aren't

salad topped with sunflower seeds
The biggest influence on blood cholesterol is the fats in your diet, not the amount of cholesterol you get from food. Be smart about fats by knowing the difference between the good fats, which that can lower your risk for disease, and the bad fats, which can raise your cholesterol levels.

Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

Fats are an essential part of your diet. Fats should make up 20-35 percent of your dietary calories. For example, in an 1,800-calorie diet, 360-630 calories should come from fat. Fats help with nutrient absorption but, when consumed in excess, they can contribute to weight gain, heart disease, and even cancer.

However, not all fats are created equal. While some fats will raise your cholesterol and take a toll on your body, others help promote healthy body function.

The Good Fats: Monounsaturated fat, Polyunsaturated fat

The Bad Fats: Saturated fat, Trans fat

Tip for distinguishing fats: Because of their structure, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature (think butter) while unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature (think oil).

We'll look at these four fats and help you make healthy decisions when buying groceries, cooking, and eating out.

Good Fat: Monounsaturated Fat

Why they're good: Monounsaturated fats can lower your risk of heart disease. They are also typically found in foods with high vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps keep your cells healthy.

What they do for cholesterol: Monounsaturated fats decrease total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.

Foods with monounsaturated fats:

Olive oil

Canola oil

Sunflower oil

Avocado

Peanut butter

Bad Fat: Saturated Fat

Why they're bad: Saturated fats are found in high amounts in animal fats and tropical oils. Saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

What they do for cholesterol: Saturated fats increase total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and can lower HDL (good) cholesterol.

Foods with saturated fats:

Dairy (full-fat)

Beef

Pork

Palm oil

Coconut oil

Good Fat: Polyunsaturated Fat

Why they're good: Omega-3 fatty acids are included in the polyunsaturated fat group. In addition to helping maintain healthy heart function, omega-3s are necessary for healthy cell development and brain function.

What they do for cholesterol: Polyunsaturated fats decrease total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease cardiovascular risk and the risk of sudden death

Foods with polyunsaturated fats:

Soybean oil

Corn oil

Safflower oil

Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout)

Walnuts

Sunflower seeds

Ground flaxseeds

Bad Fat: Trans Fat

Why they're bad: Too much trans fat in your diet is not only associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke, it is also linked to increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes. Most trans fats are artificially made (a small amount are naturally found).

What they do for cholesterol: Trans fats increase total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol. They also raise the total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio.

Foods with trans fats:

Fried foods

Baked and processed goods

Anything with "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredient list

Shop for Good Fats

So how can you effectively change your bad fat eating habits? Try these grocery-shopping tips:

-- Choose oils that are low in saturated fat and are trans-fat free. Read the label to see if they have good polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat.

-- Choose low-fat milk and choose lean cuts of meat.

-- Stock up on fresh food supplies that aren't processed, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

-- Avoid foods with any hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list.

Avoid Bad Fats at Restaurants

Be heart-smart when you eat outside of your home. Do some research before heading to your dining destination-check the restaurant's Web site or call ahead so you can plan a healthful meal.

Also try these dining-out solutions:

-- Don't butter your rolls.

-- Avoid foods that are listed as fried, au gratin, creamed, scalloped, or breaded.

-- Look for foods that are grilled, baked, steamed, or roasted.

-- Choose lean meats, such as poultry or seafood.

-- Ask for sauces and dressings to be served on the side.

-- Look for healthy or light options on menus (these are your best bets).

-- Hold the mayonnaise on sandwiches and burgers.

Cook with Good Fats

A few recipe substitutions can help you avoid bad fats when cooking. Try these ideas:

-- Top salads with sunflower seeds or ground flaxseed instead of high-fat dressing.

-- Use nonstick pans and nonstick cooking spray rather than butter and high-fat oils to coat your baking pans.

-- Choose low-fat versions of mayonnaise, milk, and cheese.

For cakes and muffins, use applesauce or a fruit puree, such as pureed prunes, in place of some or all of the butter or oil.

-- Sub evaporated skim milk for heavy cream.

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