All fats are not equal

Discover the difference between healthy versus unhealthy fats.

For years, fat had a serious image problem. Now we know better. And the news is good! Today’s thinking says the type of fat you eat is far more important than the amount. But that doesn’t exactly mean it’s OK to bring on the burgers and fries. There are different kinds of fat and some of them are better for you than others.

Here’s what you need to know to make  smart choices about the fats you eat:

Trans fat: skip it

If saturated fat spells trouble, trans fat is even worse. This unhealthful fat boosts damaging LDL cholesterol while simultaneously lowering beneficial HDL cholesterol. Consuming more trans fat  may be linked to your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Where you’ll find it: Some brands of stick margarine, coffee creamer, cake, cookies, frosting, microwave popcorn, and crackers. It also hides out in fast food, especially fried chicken, French fries, and donuts.

Even if you’re trying to limit trans fat, it can be tricky to spot. How so? A labeling loophole that allows food manufacturers to say a food contains zero grams of trans fat even if it harbors up to half a gram per serving. That’s where the ingredient list comes in handy. Scour it for trans fat’s scientific names: hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.

How much is too much? Trans fat is so troublesome that, as of June 2018, food manufacturers won’t even be allowed to use it anymore. In the meantime, try to avoid it as much as possible.


Saturated fat: proceed with caution

Saturated fat is hard at room temperature. So it’s no surprise it can plug up your arteries if you eat too much. What’s more, too much saturated fat ramps up production of LDL cholesterol — the harmful kind that has been linked to heart disease and stroke.  While you don’t have to steer clear of saturated fat entirely, it is a good idea to limit it.

Where you’ll find it: Beef, pork, cheese, full-fat and 2% milk, butter, cream, and coconut and palm oils.

How much is too much? More than 10 percent of your day’s calories (6 percent if you have heart disease), which would be about 13 g for someone on a 1,200-calorie diet. (See below for an example of what a day eating 10 percent saturated fat looks like.)


Unsaturated fat: go for it!

Unsaturated fats are your friends. Swapping saturated fats for these advantageous fats (especially polyunsaturated fats) protects against heart disease and may even help you live longer.

Where you’ll find it: There are two types unsaturated fats, mono and polyunsaturated fats. While many foods contain a combination of the two, monos are mainly found in avocados, peanut butter, and canola, olive, and peanut oils. Polys are a bit more complicated.  On the most basic level you’ll find them in tofu, sunflower seeds, and soybean, corn, and sunflower oils. However, the healthiest polyunsaturates are the omega-3s, super fats that keep your heart and brain in top shape. Get them from fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, trout, and herring as well as canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed.

How much is too much? Provided you keep within your SmartPoints budget, don’t worry about eating too many polys (specifically omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, and docosapentaenoic acid, DHA, found in fatty fish). However, here is something to keep in mind: There are several types of omega-3 fats. Although omega-3s in general are healthy and “good,” there are some of these specific fatty acids that have been well studied and they are the real links with health benefits.

For example, EPA and DHA are the beneficial fats, while ALA (found in flax, walnuts, etc.) are less beneficial.

All polys are still “better” than saturated fats.


Cholesterol: don’t sweat it

Cholesterol isn’t all bad. In fact, we need it for important jobs like manufacturing vitamin D and hormones and keeping cells and tissues healthy. Your liver makes the bulk of it, so for most people the amount you eat has little bearing on your heart health.

Where you’ll find it: Cholesterol only occurs in animal foods, especially steak, burgers, sausages, chicken, eggs, cheese, and whole milk.

How much is too much? While it seems that most healthy people’s bodies will adjust the amount of cholesterol they make when they eat too much, this is highly individualized so talk to your doctor. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, there’s no need to worry about it.

RELATED: Why you should eat (some) fat

The facts on fats

If you're trying to lose weight, is it better to follow a low-fat or a low-carb diet?
Pick your favorite—whichever you’d find easier to stick with. A recent Stanford University study of 609 adults found that dieters following either a very low-fat diet or a very low-carb plan for 12 months dropped roughly the same amount of weight (about 11.7 pounds for the low-fat group versus 13 for the low-carb). What was key: The dieters on either plan changed their diets to include more whole foods and vegetables, with less sugar and less refined flour. And according to evidence-based guidelines on weight management, there is no one “best way” to lose weight. Consuming fewer calories leads to weight loss. But making lasting lifestyle and behavioral changes is an essential component for losing weight and keeping it off for good.


Is it true that butter is healthier than margarine?
Not true! Some claim that margarine is a “synthetic” product closely related to plastic. “Synthetic means made by a chemical process to imitate a natural product. Margarine does imitate butter, but it’s made from another natural product, vegetable oil,” says Harriet Hall, MD, retired US Air Force Flight Surgeon and an editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog. “The only thing margarine and plastics have in common is that they both contain molecules made up of elements—which is true of almost everything.” Another claim—that margarine raises the risk of heart disease—doesn’t hold up, either. It’s true that in the past margarines may have contained trans fats, which can affect heart health, but manufacturers have had to eliminate trans fats as an ingredient, so that’s no longer a problem. What’s more,
Dr. Hall explains, “Most margarines are substantially lower in saturated fats than butter.” Some brands that contain plant sterols and stanols (like Benecol and Promise Activ Take Control spread) can even be beneficial in that they help lower LDL cholesterol in some people, adds Weight Watchers diabetes coach Hope Paul, RD. As for the assertion that margarine has been shown to be carcinogenic, Dr. Hall says that it has not, to her knowledge.

How much fat can you eat in a day?
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed restrictions on total fat intake and now emphasize limiting fat as part of overall healthy eating patterns. The guidelines do stipulate that no more than 10 percent of total daily calories should come from saturated fat.

What's the deal with coconut oil?
Overall, current research does not support adding coconut oil (or other saturated fats) to your diet. Studies have found mixed results for weight management, satiety, and waist circumference. More long-term research is needed, but regardless, it would be challenging to lose weight eating coconut oil. It has the same 9 calories per gram, or 120 calories per tablespoon, as olive oil and other fats. What’s more, it’s primarily saturated fat, which the AHA recommends keeping to a minimum in your diet. “Use a little if you enjoy the flavor,” Paul advises, but for optimal health and help with managing your weight, an overall healthy eating plan and regular physical activity will be more effective.

Can you eat too little fat?
You might think no fat is the way to go, but although there’s no recommended minimum, your body needs fat, about 2 tablespoons a day, Wright says. Fat provides energy, is necessary for cell growth, produces some hormones you need, and helps your body absorb important nutrients (fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K).

Beverage: 1 - 2 cups fat-free milk (3 SmartPoint Value each, .1 g sat fat each) or 5 oz. wine (4 SmartPoints value, 0g sat fat)  

Snack: fruit (0 SmartPoints value) and light string cheese (1 SmartPoints value, 1.5 g sat fat for WW string cheese)


RELATED: What to eat on WW