Dietary fats: Our healthy choice

Most foods contain several different kinds of fats — including saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fats — and some kinds are better for your health than others are.

You don’t need to completely eliminate all fats from your meals. Instead, choose the healthier types of fats and enjoy them in moderation.

Healthy fats

When choosing fats, your best options are unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats, if used in place of others, can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in your blood.

One type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids, may be especially beneficial to your heart. Omega-3s appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. They may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels.

Below are the best food sources of these healthy fats:

Type of healthy fat Food source
Monounsaturated fat Olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds
Polyunsaturated fat Vegetable oils (such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils), nuts and seeds
Omega-3 fatty acids Fatty, cold-water fish (such as salmon, mackerel and herring), flaxseeds, flax oil and walnuts

Harmful fats

Saturated and trans fats (trans-fatty acids) are less healthy kinds of fats. They can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol isn’t technically a fat, but it’s found in food derived from animal sources. Intake of dietary cholesterol increases blood cholesterol levels, but not as much as saturated and trans fats do, and not to the same degree in all people.

Below are common food sources of harmful fats:

Type of harmful fat Food source
Saturated fat Animal products (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter), and coconut, palm and other tropical oils
Trans fat Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, commercial baked goods (such as crackers, cookies and cakes), fried foods (such as doughnuts and french fries), shortening and margarine
Dietary cholesterol Animal products (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter)

Daily limits for fat intake

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend that fat make up no more than 35 percent of your daily calories. This means that if you consume 1,800 calories a day, eat no more than 70 grams of fat daily. (To figure: Multiply 1,800 by 0.35 to get 630 calories, and divide that number by 9, the number of calories per gram of fat, to get 70 grams of total fat.) Keep in mind, however, that this is an upper limit and that most of these fat calories should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources.

In addition, the USDA and HHS recommend these upper limits for saturated fat and dietary cholesterol for healthy adults:

Type of fat Recommendation
Saturated fat Less than 10 percent of your total daily calories
Dietary cholesterol Less than 300 milligrams a day

Though the USDA and HHS haven’t yet established an upper limit for trans fat, they do suggest that you keep your trans fat intake as low as possible. The American Heart Association, on the other hand, has set an upper limit for trans fat — no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories. For most people, this is less than 2 grams a day.

Be aware that many foods contain different kinds of fat and varying levels of each type. For example, butter contains unsaturated fats, but a large percentage of the total fat is saturated fat. And canola oil has a high percentage of monounsaturated fat, but also contains smaller amounts of polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat.

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