Fats are nutrients that give you energy. Fats have 9 calories in each gram. Fats help in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats are either saturated or unsaturated, and most foods with fat have both types. But usually there is more of one kind of fat than the other.
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature, which is why it is also known as "solid fat." It is mostly in animal foods, such as milk, cheese, and meat. Poultry and fish have less saturated fat than red meat. Saturated fat is also in tropical oils, such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter. You'll find tropical oils in many snacks and in nondairy foods, such as coffee creamers and whipped toppings. Foods made with butter, margarine, or shortening (cakes, cookies, and other desserts) have a lot of saturated fat. Saturated fat can raise your cholesterol. A healthy diet has less than 10% of daily calories from saturated fat.footnote 1
This is a fat that has been changed by a process called hydrogenation. This process increases the shelf life of fat and makes the fat harder at room temperature. Harder fat makes crispier crackers and flakier pie crusts. Trans fat can raise your cholesterol, so eat as little trans fat as possible. You'll find it in:
- Processed foods.
- Snack foods, such as chips and crackers.
- Some margarine and salad dressings.
- Foods made with shortening and partially hydrogenated oils.
Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature. It is mostly in oils from plants. If you eat unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat, it may help improve your cholesterol levels. Try to eat mostly unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are types of unsaturated fat.
- Monounsaturated fat: This fat is in avocado, nuts, and vegetable oils, such as canola, olive, and peanut oils. Eating foods that are high in monounsaturated fats may help lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats may also keep "good" HDL cholesterol levels high. But eating more unsaturated fat without cutting back on saturated fat may not lower your cholesterol.
- Polyunsaturated fat: This type of fat is mainly in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, soybean, and corn oils. Polyunsaturated fat is also the main fat found in seafood. Eating polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat may lower LDL cholesterol. The two types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods from plants like soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed. They are also found in fatty fish and shellfish as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, Atlantic mackerel, and Pacific mackerel are high in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury. A healthy diet includes 8 ounces or more of these types of fish a week, averaging 250 mg a day of these omega-3 fatty acids.footnote 2
- Omega-6 fatty acids are found mostly in liquid vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil.
Total fat includes saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fat.
Review the nutrition facts label on food packaging to learn the total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Food labels are not required to list monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.
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- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 8th ed. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed January 12, 2016.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2010). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, 7th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Also available online: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2010.asp.
Current as of: August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Current as of: August 22, 2019