Good vs. Bad Fats: What’s the Skinny?

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD  

Fat has been demonized in the past as a major contributor to weight gain. This is because fat contains more energy per gram than other macronutrients. So, in theory, excessive consumption of fat contributes unnecessary calories and can lead to gaining extra pounds.  

However, there is no need to fear fat! Fat helps you absorb nutrients, provides cushion for organs, keeps you warm, and helps the body produce hormones. Including a source of fat at meals also helps people feel full which may lead them to eat less calories overall.  

As you can see, fat is vital to your health. However, it is important to choose the right kind of fats in appropriate portion sizes.  

Healthy Fats  

The healthiest types of fats include mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These fats tend to be liquid at room temperature.  

Foods that are high in monounsaturated fat include olive oil, avocados, and most nuts. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 fatty acids, found in most nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds.  

These fats, especially those from monounsaturated and omega-3 sources, should make up the majority of your daily fat intake. They provide the body with necessary nutrients and have heart healthy and anti-inflammatory properties.  

Saturated and Trans Fats 

Saturated fat is one of the most debated nutrients in the nutrition world. Past research has suggested that an over-consumption of saturated fat may contribute to heart disease and other health issues, but more recent research shows that this may not always be the case.  

The 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that healthy adults should get no more than 10% of their daily calories from saturated fat. Ideally, this would come from grass-fed and pastured meats, coconut, nuts, and full fat dairy products.  

Trans fats are usually man-made and do not occur naturally, with the exception of small amounts in some animal foods. They are created to increase the shelf life of products by a process called hydrogenation. 

Foods with trans fats include margarine, frostings, doughnuts, baked goods, French fries, and some other processed foods. In recent years, most food companies have removed trans fats from their products completely. However, they are still legally permitted to have up to 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving in their foods but report this as 0 grams on the nutrition label. 

Consumption of trans fat can be detrimental to health and has been linked to heart disease and other health issues. So, while some saturated fat is an important part of a healthy diet, trans fat should be completely avoided.   

Daily Fat Intake and Portion Sizes 

The recommended daily fat intake for healthy adults is between 20 to 35% of calories. Foods with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats should make up the majority of fat intake. These include avocado, olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.  

Saturated fat should make up less than 10% of your daily calorie intake. Foods with this fat include coconut, meat, and dairy products. Finally, trans fat should be avoided at all costs.  

Since fat has more calories per gram than any other nutrient, be sure to keep portion sizes in mind. Recommended servings of fat are usually one teaspoon to one tablespoon of oils and butter, ¼ to ½ an avocado, and two tablespoons to ¼ cup of nuts and seeds at a time. 

Note from Healthy For Life Meals: Get your healthy fats in with our freshly prepared meals! Our meal plans provide an optimal proportion of healthy fats from foods such as avocados, nuts, eggs, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and olive oil. In addition, our menus meet the strict guidelines of the American Heart Association for limiting total fat and saturated fat, and include zero trans fats.  Get started today. 

Stef Keegan