Dietary fat: Know which to choose
Fat is an important part of your diet, but some kinds are healthier than others. Find out which to choose and which to avoid.By Mayo Clinic Staff
Dietary fat is essential to your health. It gives you energy and helps your body absorb vitamins.
But some types of fat may play a role in heart disease and stroke. In addition, fat is high in calories. Eating too many calories can lead to weight gain and possibly obesity.
Find out which type of fat to choose — and which to avoid — for good health.
The facts about fat
Most foods contain a mix of different kinds of fat. For example, canola oil contains some saturated fat but is mostly monounsaturated fat. In contrast, butter contains some unsaturated fat but is mostly saturated fat.
What's the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat?
- Saturated fat. This is solid at room temperature. It's found in butter, lard, full-fat milk and yogurt, full-fat cheese, and high-fat meat.
- Unsaturated fat. This tends to be liquid at room temperature. It's found in vegetable oils, fish and nuts.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories a day. The American Heart Association recommends staying under 7% of daily calories.
Why? Because saturated fat tends to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood. High cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Saturated fat occurs naturally in red meat and dairy products. It's also found in baked goods and fried foods.
Trans fat occurs naturally in small amounts in red meat and dairy products. Trans fat can also be manufactured by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil.
This artificial form of trans fat is known as partially hydrogenated oil. It has unhealthy effects on cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. For this reason, partially hydrogenated oil can no longer be added to foods in the U.S.
Studies show that eating foods rich in unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke.
One type in particular — omega-3 fatty acid — appears to boost heart health by improving cholesterol levels, reducing blood clotting, reducing irregular heartbeats and slightly lowering blood pressure.
There are two main types of unsaturated fat:
- Monounsaturated fat. This is found in olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and safflower oils, and in avocados, peanut butter and most nuts. It's also are part of most animal fats such as fats from chicken, pork and beef.
- Polyunsaturated fat. This is found in sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils. It's also found in walnuts, pine nuts, flaxseed, and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Omega-3s fall into this category and are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring and sardines.
How can I start eating healthier?
Focus on replacing foods high in saturated fat with foods rich in unsaturated fat.
Try these tips to reduce unhealthy fat in your diet:
- Use oil instead of butter. For example, saute with olive oil instead of butter, and use canola oil when baking.
- Eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, instead of meat at least twice a week.
- Choose lean meat and skinless poultry. Trim visible fat from meat. Remove fat and skin from poultry.
- Limit processed foods, which often contain saturated fat. Instead reach for whole fruits and vegetables when you're hungry.
Don't go to extremes
You don't have to cut fat from your diet. But be smart about the amount and type of fat you choose. Remember fat is high in calories. Choose foods rich in healthier unsaturated fat instead of foods high in saturated fat, not in addition to them.
April 08, 2021
From Mayo Clinic to your inbox
Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.
ErrorEmail field is required
ErrorInclude a valid email address
To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which
information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with
other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could
include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected
health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health
information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of
privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on
the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.
Thank you for subscribing
Our Housecall e-newsletter will keep you up-to-date on the latest health information.
Sorry something went wrong with your subscription
Please, try again in a couple of minutes
See more In-depth
- Duyff RL. Fat facts. In: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2017.
- 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Accessed Feb. 16, 2021.
- Dietary Reference Intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. https://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309085373 Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
- Saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/node/5664. Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
- AskMayoExpert. Hyperlipidemia (adult). Mayo Clinic; 2019.
- The skinny on fats. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia/the-skinny-on-fats. Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
- Sacks FM, et al. Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: A presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017; doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510.
- Bonow RO, et al., eds. Nutrition and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. In: Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Elsevier; 2019. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
- AskMayoExpert. Healthy diet (adult). Mayo Clinic; 2020.
- Hooper L, et al. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2020; doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011737.pub3.
- Mozaffarian D. Dietary fat. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.
- Polyunsaturated fat. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/polyunsaturated-fats. Accessed Feb. 16, 2021.
- Mozaffarian D. Dietary fat. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed March 1, 2021.
- Saturated fat. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Accessed Feb. 15, 2021.