Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Fats

Updated:May 19,2014
Does my body need fats?
Yes, it does. Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth. They also help protect your organs and keep your body warm. Fats help your body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones, too. Your body definitely needs fat – but not as much fat as most people eat.

How many different fats are there?
There are four major dietary fats in the foods we eat: saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The four types have different chemical structures and physical properties. The bad fats, saturated and trans fats, tend to be more solid at room temperature (like a stick of butter), while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be more liquid (like liquid vegetable oil).

Fats can also have different effects on the cholesterol levels in your body. The bad fats, saturated fats and trans fats, raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels in your blood. The better fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, can lower bad cholesterol levels and are beneficial when consumed in moderation.

Do all fats have the same number of calories?
There are nine calories in every gram of fat, regardless of what type of fat it is. That’s a lot of calories compared to carbohydrates and proteins, which contain four calories per gram. Because fats are so energy-dense, consuming high levels of fat – regardless of the type – can lead to taking in too many calories. That can lead to weight gain or being overweight. Consuming high levels of saturated or trans fats can also lead to heart disease and stroke. Health experts generally recommend replacing saturated fats and trans fats with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – while still limiting the total amount of fat you consume.

Are all foods labeled "trans fat-free" healthy foods?
Not necessarily. Foods labeled “no trans fat” or cooked with “trans fat-free” oils may contain a lot of saturated fats, which raise your bad cholesterol levels. “Trans fat-free” foods may also be unhealthy in terms of their general nutrient content. For example, baked goods tend to be high in added sugars and low in nutrients.

Can fats be part of a healthy diet?
Eating foods with a moderate amount of fat is definitely part of a healthy diet. Just remember to balance the amount of calories you eat with the amount of calories you burn. Aim to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole-grain/high-fiber foods, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry, and fish (at least twice a week). This will help keep your diet low in both saturated fats and trans fats.

What are some sources of healthy fats?
Dietary sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats include many liquid plant-based oils (such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil), as well as oily/fatty types of fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring and trout), many nuts and seeds (such as walnuts and sunflower seeds), nut butters (such as peanut butter), and avocados.

What are the "bad" fats and which foods contain them?
The "bad” fats are saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods. The majority come from animal sources -- meat and dairy (milk fat) such as fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, beef fat (tallow), lard, cream, butter, cheese, and other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2%) milk. These foods also contain cholesterol. Many baked goods and fried foods can also contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant foods, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats but do not contain cholesterol.

Trans fats are found in many foods. Some come from animal fat but the majority come from partially hydrogenated fat – especially in processed baked goods (pastries, biscuits, muffins, cakes, pie crusts, doughnuts and cookies), fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, breaded chicken nuggets and breaded fish), snack foods (popcorn, crackers), and other foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, traditional vegetable shortening or stick margarine. (Soft margarines typically contain very low levels of trans fats.)

What do most people eat more of – saturated fats or trans fats?
Americans generally eat more saturated fats than trans fats. For good health, limit your consumption of saturated fats to 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories and cut back on foods containing partially hydrogenated oils to reduce trans fat in your diet.

Are trans fats worse than saturated fats?
They should both be minimized in the diet, since both trans fats and saturated fats increase your bad cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease. However, since trans fats may also decrease your HDL (“good”) cholesterol (and may have other harmful effects), some experts believe that trans fats may be somewhat worse for you than saturated fats. That doesn’t mean you should eat more saturated fats, or that you should substitute saturated fats for trans fats.

The American Heart Association recommends an overall healthy diet and lifestyle to combat heart disease and stroke. Limit your consumption of saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your daily calories and cut back on foods containing partially hydrogenated oils to reduce trans fat in your diet. In practical terms, this means eating a diet containing a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grain products, especially fiber-rich whole grains; fat-free and low-fat dairy products; legumes, poultry, and lean meats; and fish, preferably oily fish, at least twice a week.

Should I eliminate trans fats entirely from my diet?
Very small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, so eliminating trans fats entirely is impractical for many people, except maybe vegans. We recommend limiting the amount of trans fats you eat by avoiding foods made with partially hydrogenated oils.

Should I worry about creating trans fats in my kitchen through cooking?
No. Trans fats are produced in a manufacturing process in which hydrogen is added to make liquid vegetable oils more stable. Cooking and frying in the kitchen does not create trans fats, even if the oil temperature is high enough to reach the smoke point.

What is the difference between partially hydrogenated oils and fully hydrogenated oils?
Hydrogenation is the process by which liquid vegetable oil is turned into solid fat. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats. However, when liquid vegetable oil is fully hydrogenated almost no trans fats remain.

Some say that naturally occurring trans fats (such as conjugated linoleic acid [CLA]) are not as harmful as other trans fats. Is it true?
Some trans fats, including CLA, occur naturally in beef, lamb, and full fat dairy products. Studies suggest that CLA may not have the same negative effects on blood cholesterol that partially hydrogenated oils do, although the other trans fats in meat may. However, these foods are high in saturated fats and consumption should be minimized. The American Heart Association recommends limiting consumption of trans fats from all sources.

What's cocoa butter and what's its health effect?
Cocoa butter is a natural, yellowish-white vegetable fat extracted from cocoa beans. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature and very stable. It is used to add smoothness and flavor in some foods, including chocolate. Cocoa butter has significant amounts of saturated fats. Foods containing cocoa butter can be high in calories as well as butterfat and sugar; therefore you should consider them as treats that you eat only once in a while.

What effect does dietary cholesterol have on heart health?
People get cholesterol in two ways – the liver makes cholesterol and many foods contain dietary cholesterol. Typically, the body makes all the cholesterol it needs, so people don’t need to consume it. However, saturated fats and trans fats are the main “culprits” that can raise blood cholesterol. To lower blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease, reduce saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of total calories and cut back on foods containing partially hydrogenated oils.

Last reviewed 5/19/2014

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