Nutrition 101: What You Should Know About Healthy And Unhealthy Fats

While you should avoid some fats completely, others are good for you to eat (in moderation).
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Written by Andrea Ho, a registered dietitian with the Schulich Heart Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Making healthy food choices and establishing healthy eating habits is key to keeping your heart pumping well and lowering your risk for heart disease. Limiting your total fat intake can help improve your blood cholesterol level and help you maintain a healthy weight. But are all fats bad? While you should avoid some fats completely, others are good for you to eat (in moderation).

Selection of healthy fat sources.
Selection of healthy fat sources.

Unhealthy fats: Limit your intake.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of blood fat in your body. Elevated levels of both of these in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease. Saturated fat is found in meat and dairy products, as well as tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil.

Tips to limit your saturated fats:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat, skinless poultry, and trim visible fat off the meat before cooking.
  • Choose lower fat products such as skim or 1% milk, partly skimmed cheese, and fat-free yogurt.
  • Use less butter, palm oil, and coconut oil.

Trans fats

Trans fats are even worse for your body than saturated fat because they raise LDL ("lousy") cholesterol and lower HDL ("healthy") cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease. They are formed during a process called hydrogenation when a liquid oil is "transformed" into a solid fat. Foods that contain trans fats include hard margarine, shortening, fast foods, and products made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Tips to eliminate trans fats:

  • Food products that claim "Trans Fat Free" or "Zero Trans Fat," actually contain 0.2 grams of trans fat or less per serving, which means it may still contain a trace amount of trans fat. Use the Nutrition Facts Table and Ingredients List to help you pick products that don't have any trans fat.
  • Choose non-hydrogenated margarine and avoid using hard margarine and shortening.
  • Avoid eating fast food, but if you find yourself needing the quick fix, choose healthier options such as salad (go easy on the dressing) or grilled instead of deep-fried items.

Healthy fats: Eat in moderation.

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. They are mainly found in plant foods and are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated fats that are found in canola oil, olive oil, nuts, nut oils, and avocado; and polyunsaturated fats that include omega-3 fats (more on that below).

Eating too much fat (even if it's the healthy kind) can still lead to weight gain, so it's important to use these fats in moderation. Use up to 2-3 tablespoons of added fats - like cooking oil or vinaigrette dressings - per day.

Tips to manage your unsaturated fats:

  • Make heart-healthy dishes with a small amount of plant-based cooking oil and heart healthy cooking methods such as grilling, stir-frying, baking, and roasting. Keep in mind that the amount of cooking oil you use is more important than the type of oil.
  • No matter how healthy your cooking oil, avoid deep-frying and pan-frying.
  • Enjoy salads with oil-based vinaigrette instead of creamy dressings.
  • Eat unsalted nuts and nut butters.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats are essential fats that our bodies need but don't naturally make, so we must get it from food. Eating foods that are rich in omega-3 help lower your risk of heart disease by lowering triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol. These foods include fatty fish such as salmon, trout, sardines; ground flax seed, walnuts, canola oil, and wheat germ.

Before starting omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil or flax oil capsules, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or dietitian to make sure it's safe to do so. There may be drug-nutrient interactions with medications you are taking.

Tips to get your omega-3 requirements, without supplements:

  • Eat fatty fish 2-3 times a week instead of meat.
  • Sprinkle ground flax seed on your cereal or yogurt.
  • Choose flax products and other foods high in omega-3 more often, such as flax bread and omega-3 eggs.

The Bottom Line

Know which fats are in the food you eat, and choose foods with healthier fats more often (but still in moderate amounts) to help keep your heart healthy.

Read more heart-healthy nutrition information from Sunnybrook experts at

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