The skinny on dietary fats

Low-fat, saturated, reduced fat, unsaturated... With so much confusion about good fats and bad fats and every possibility in between, it’s no wonder why fat has such a rap. The real truth? Eating fat doesn’t make you fat, and everyone needs to eat a little dietary fat to help absorb some vitamins, give you some energy, and help with blood clotting. 

Now, before we go any further, I have to tell you a not-so-secret tip: not all fats are created equally. Fat can be broken down into two categories: saturated (the bad, cholesterol raising fat) and unsaturated (the good fat that can help control cholesterol). Trans fat and hydrogenated fats, are fats that have been altered to make them solid or semi-solid.

So, what’s a health-conscious consumer to do?

Eat it if… the fat is an oil. Most oils are unsaturated fats, and are good for you when eaten in place of solid fats. Some oils like olive, canola, flaxseed, and sesame can increase HDL levels (good cholesterol) and can help to decrease LDL levels (the bad cholesterol).

Leave it if… the fat comes from a land-roaming animal. Beef, dairy, and pork products often contain the highest amounts of saturated, artery-clogging fats. If you are eating red meat, look for the least marbled cuts (the white swirl throughout the meat is saturated fat). Chicken and turkey are leaner options.

Eat it if… it’s a fish! Fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, tuna, and sardines are full of Omega-3 fatty acids.  What’s so great about Omega-3s? They have been shown to help lower triglycerides as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Leave it if… there is any mention of trans fat or hydrogenated fat in the ingredient list. Consumption of these modified fats have been correlated with heart disease. 

Eat it if… it’s a nut. Nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios contain healthy fats and are packed with vitamins and minerals like vitamin E, selenium, and magnesium. 

Leave it if… the saturated fat content is more than 5% of the DV (daily value) listed on the food label. 

And remember — too much of a good thing isn’t, well, good. Even healthy fats are high in calories, so practice moderation for a balanced diet.

Writer's Note: Many of our knowledgeable readers have cited a study released March 18, 2014 that concludes saturated fats may not be as bad for our hearts as once stated. Nutrition is still a very new science, and we applaud the critical discussion of current research while remaining evidenced and consensus-based in health recommendations. As of this article’s publication date, The American Heart Association and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have not changed their recommendations on saturated fats.


Beth Wallace Smith, RD, CNSC, LDN is a registered dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and has more than eight years of experience in providing nutrition care for adolescents and children.