Your Definitive Guide to Fats: Eat This, Not That

healthy fats

No doubt about it: Fats have a bad reputation. But did you know some are not only good for you, but vital to your health? Here’s essential information about which fats you should avoid and which ones you should embrace. 

Fats have been positioned as dietary public enemy No. 1. But it turns out not all fats are created equally — and not all deserve their 4-letter-word reputation. While some should be avoided summarily, others are essential to a healthy, balanced diet.

Fat is indeed a nutrient necessary for your health. While various fats in foods have different effects on health, some offer health-protective benefits. They give our bodies energy, protect our organs, help our body absorb nutrients and produce important hormones.

How much should I eat?

Your body definitely needs fat. But how much? Consuming too much can lead to weight gain and, if consumed in excess, obesity. It can also increase your risk for heart disease. The amount you should consume each day depends on your calorie needs, which are based on your size and activity level. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adult men need between 2,000 and 3,000 calories daily, while women require 1,600 to 2,400 calories daily to maintain a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate number of calories you need each day.

What types should I eat?

The four major fats in foods are saturated and trans fats (the bad ones) and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the “better” ones). Below you’ll find the 101 on each of these, including foods that commonly contain each of them, the effects they have on heart health and the amount of each you should incorporate into your diet each day.


Different fats have different characteristics and can also have various effects on heart health. Find the American Heart Association’s recommendations below:

The Skinny on Fats

The Bad Fats

Saturated fats can raise bad cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. Less than 7 percent of your daily calories should come from these. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, for example, less than 140 calories (15 grams) can come from saturated fats.

Saturated Fats

Commonly found in these foods:

  • Animal products: Beef, lamb, pork, poultry with the skin, beef fat, lard, cream, butter, cheese, other whole or reduced-fat dairy products
  • Some plants: Palm, and palm kernel and coconut oils

Effect on heart health:

  • Are high in cholesterol
  • Raise bad cholesterol level
  • Increase risk of heart disease

Daily Limit:

  • Less than 7 percent of total daily calories
  • If you eat 2,000 calories a day, less than 140 calories (15 grams) can come from saturated fats

Trans Fats

Commonly found in these foods:

  • 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 and crackers
  • Traditional stick margarine and vegetable shortening

Effect on heart health:

  • Raise bad cholesterol
  • May lower good cholesterol
  • Increase risk of heart disease

Daily Limit:

  • Less than 1 percent of total daily calories
  • If you eat 2,000 calories a day, less than 20 calories (2 grams) can come from trans fats

The Skinny on Fats

The Better Fats

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats help reduce bad cholesterol and may lower your risk of heart disease. These should make up 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calorie intake. So, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, 500 to 700 calories should include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated Fats

Commonly found in these foods: 

  • Vegetable oils: olive, canola, peanut and sesame
  • Avocados and olives
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds and peanuts/peanut butter

Polyunsaturated Fats

Commonly found in these foods:

  • Vegetable oils: soybean, corn and safflower
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts and sunflower seeds
  • High in omega-3 and omega-6
  • Fatty fish: salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout

Effect on heart health:

  • Reduce bad cholesterol
  • May lower risk of heart disease

Daily Limit:

    • Total fats should comprise 25 to 35 percent of total daily calories
    • Eat foods with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated or trans fats

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  1. I had heard there are some mixed reviews about coconut oils. You have them listed as only bad fats, but I have heard differently, can you clarify please? Thank you,
    • Hi Faith, Thank you for reading BestMEDICINE and for your feedback. The majority of the information in the "Skinny on Fats" story was provided from the American Heart Association's recommendations for consuming heart-healthy fats. According to the AHA, coconut oil is high in saturated fats and therefore, should be limited. You are correct that coconut oil has been receiving a variety of mixed reviews, mostly from its high amount of medium-chain fatty acids or triglycerides (MCFAs or MCTs), which our bodies metabolize more like a carbohydrate than a fat and it is then quickly used for energy. However, there are concerns over the type of coconut oils being consumed (i.e. partially hydrogenated, refined or unrefined) and how they affect your health. Read more: Hopefully this information helps! Also, we will be putting together a story specifically on coconut oil and its hype-- look for that story very soon. Thank you again for reading! Katrina