The Skinny on Fats

Updated:Sep 19,2017

The skinny on fats
What you eat can affect your LDL cholesterol. Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don't is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. Your body naturally produces all the LDL cholesterol you need. Eating foods containing saturated fat and trans fat causes your body to produce even more, raising your blood cholesterol level.

Here’s important information to know about each kind of fat.

Saturated fat
nutrition labelThe majority of saturated fat comes from animal products such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or 2 percent milk. All of these foods also contain dietary cholesterol. Foods from plants that contain saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils) and cocoa butter. For people who need to lower their cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total daily calories.

Unsaturated fat
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the two unsaturated fats. They're mainly found in fish such as salmon, trout and herring, avocados, olives, walnuts and liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower.

Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats.

Trans Fat
Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Another name for trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils." Trans fats are found in many fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, pizza dough, pie crust, cookies and crackers.

Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. These changes are associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

Since 2006, the FDA has required trans fat content to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of packaged foods. In recent years, many major national fast-food chains and casual-dining restaurant chains have announced they will no longer use trans fats to fry or deep-fry foods. Many smaller local and regional restaurant chains have made similar announcements.

In late 2013, the FDA announced it is considering a policy to eliminate trans fats from processed foods.

To find the amount of trans fats in a particular packaged food, look at the Nutrition Facts panel. Companies must list any measurable amount of trans fat (0.5 grams or more per serving) in a separate line in the “Total Fat” section of the panel, directly beneath the line for “Saturated Fat.” This means if a food package states 0 gram of trans fats, it might still have some trans fats if the amount per serving is less than 0.5 g. Make sure to check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oil.”

How to eat less saturated and trans fats
The American Heart Association recommends that adults who would benefit from lowering LDL cholesterol reduce their intake of trans fat and limit their consumption of saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of total calories. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Eat a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts. Also limit red meat and sugary foods and beverages.
  • Use naturally occurring unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil most often.
  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes are examples of foods high in trans fat. Don't eat them often.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These foods are very high in fat, and it’s likely to be trans fat.
  • Limit fried fast food. Commercial shortening and deep-frying fats are still made by hydrogenation and contain saturated fat and trans fat.

Guidelines for Fats
For adults who would benefit from lowering their LDL cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends:

  • Reducing saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day that’s about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat.
  • Reducing the percent of calories from trans fat.

It's easier to gauge how much healthy and unhealthy food you are eating by using a food diary to keep track of what you eat for a period of time.

Visit our Fats 101 page to learn more about these fats.

This content was last reviewed April 2017.

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