Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: What’s the Difference?

by | Updated: December 3rd, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

Dietary fats used to be the bad guy, and for a short time in the 80s and 90s, they were practically wiped out and removed from any product. “Fat free” became a marketing buzzword for diet food marketers, even though as a population we kept getting fatter and fatter! Thankfully like all fads, the “no fat” rule is a thing of the past and we’ve accepted that fats are actually helpful and play and important role in the healthy function of the human body and even in weight loss.

Good Fats vs Bad Fats

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that adults get 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fats. Normally, for most Americans, this isn’t a problem because the typical North American diet is loaded with fat. However, choosing the right foods with the right fats can help you live longer and be healthier.

The key is knowing which fats are good, and how to best incorporate them into your nutrition and exercise plan for optimal results. Here’s a quick run-down of fats you should consume and fats you need to avoid:

The Good

Unsaturated Fats

These include polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats

  • Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils and fatty fish. Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and they help support the overall health of your body’s cells.They also contribute vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin, to your diet.
  • Omega 3s, in particular, are important polyunsaturated fats and found in fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, catfish) and flax seedThe American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish each week – just don’t deep fry it! Other sources include some nuts and seeds such as walnuts and sunflower seeds. You can also take omega-3 supplements in capsule, chewable or liquid form.
  • Monunsaturated fats are fats which are typically liquid at room temperature but solidfy when you put them in the fridge. They’re also high in vitamin E. Some good sources of monounsaturated fats include olives, almonds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews and olive, canola and peanut oils.

The Bad

One type of fat that is important, but only in very small amounts, and should be eaten sparingly, is saturated fat.

  • Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products (red meat, chicken skin, high- or full-fat dairy and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature (coconut and palm oils). Should you cut out saturated fats from your diet completely? No, and despite their bad reputation (mostly formed during the “no fat” fad mentioned above), saturated fats do have positive effects on hormone function and testosterone levels in men. In addition, saturated fats help your body retain good omega-3 fatty acids and help convert omega-3s to their usable form, EPA and DHA. The American Heart Association recommends getting 7 percent of your total calories from saturated fats. It’s also important to avoid processed foods that have high levels of saturated fat. Instead, get them natural and lean sources like grass-fed beef and eggs.
  • Always avoid foods like lard that derive most or all of their calories from saturated fat.

The Ugly

Never consume anything with trans fats (partially hydrogenated fats) on the label.

  • You’ve no doubt heard of trans fats before, but did you know there are two types of Trans Fatty Acids? There are naturally occurring trans fatty acids, which are found in small amounts in dairy and meat. The second kind of trans fatty acids is artificial trans fats called “partially hydrogenated” fats. These fats are a man-made saturated fat that is solid at room temperature. These trans fats are bad because they replace real saturated fat and essential fats in the membranes of cells throughout your body, decreasing healthy HDL cholesterol and increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol and your risk of heart disease at the same time. The American Heart Association recommends you limit trans fat consumption to a mere 2 grams per day. We recommend you avoid any foods that list “partially hydrogentated” anything on the nutrition panel and ensure that any trans fats you do consume are naturally occurring in healthy meats and eggs.
  • Foods that contain artificial trans fats include packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn and some margarines, crackers, icings and baked goods. Bear in mind that these types of products may have a label that claims it is “trans fat free”. However, you should know they can actually have up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving! This can add up quickly so it’s best to avoid these unhealthy foods completely, even on “cheat days”.

The best way to keep on top of the fats in your diet is to read all the labels of the foods you consume if you’re not buying directly from the source or from a local farm or farmers market. If you’re not eating fresh food, look for foods that are low in total fat and well as in saturated and has no trans fats. Try to use unsaturated liquid oils, such as canola or olive, instead of butter or partially hydrogenated margarine whenever possible, and limit your consumption of, or cut out completely high-fat processed foods, fried foods, sweets, and desserts.

Fats are an important part of losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Just remember all fats contain 9 calories per gram, so ensure you’re choosing the good fats as part of your diet!