The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Fats

They're not all created equal.
Published October 7, 2017

For years, fat had a serious image problem. Now we know better: Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. But that doesn’t exactly mean it’s time to bring on the butter, burgers, and fries. That’s because the type of fat you eat is important, and some kinds are better for your health than others.

The WeightWatchers® program accounts for this and guides you toward healthier fats by attributing lower Points® values to the smartest dietary fat sources. Here’s what else you need to know about the kinds of fats you eat:

Unsaturated fat

What to know about it: Unsaturated fats are your friends: They help form the building blocks of our brain and nerves, deliver essential vitamins, and support heart health. There are two kinds of unsaturated fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and most foods contain a combination. However, certain forms of polyunsaturated fat (omega-3 and omega-6) are harder to come by.

Where you’ll find it: Monounsaturated fats are mainly found in avocados, peanut butter, and canola and olive, while tofu, sunflower seeds, and soybean, corn, and sunflower oils are rich sources of polyunsaturated fats. Meanwhile, fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, trout, and herring as well as canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed are sources of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.

The verdict: Go for it!
Choose foods full of unsaturated fats over alternative fat sources when you can. To keep your quantities in check, use your Points Budget as your guide.

Saturated fat

What to know about it: Unlike liquid fats that flow, saturated fat is solid at room temperature. What’s more, eating too much saturated fat increases your levels of LDL cholesterol—the harmful kind that has been linked to heart disease and stroke. And while, like trans fats, saturated fats are not required by the body, it’s OK to consume small amounts and still have a healthy pattern of eating.

Where you’ll find it: Beef, pork, cheese, full-fat and 2% milk, butter, cream, and coconut and palm oils plus products like cakes, cookies, and ice cream, which are made with the aforementioned ingredients.

Verdict: Proceed with caution
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of our total daily calorie intake: it’s why foods higher in saturated fat are higher in Points. Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat can help you stick to your Points Budget. The WeightWatchers weight-loss program does the work so there’s no need to interpret food labels or work out saturated fat grams—foods higher in saturated fat are higher in Points.

Trans fat

What to know about it: If too much saturated fat spells trouble, trans fat is thought to be even worse. This unhealthful fat boosts damaging LDL cholesterol while simultaneously lowering beneficial HDL cholesterol. It’s why consuming more trans fat may be linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

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 cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oil, such as fried chicken, French fries, and donuts. The good news is that the use of trans fats is declining as food manufacturers find alternative ingredients for their products.

Verdict: Skip it.
Because your body doesn’t need trans fats, it’s best to eat as little of it as possible. That said, trying to steer clear of the stuff can be tricky since foods with less than 1 gram of it per serving may list 0 trans fat on their labels. That’s where the ingredient list comes in handy: Scour it for trans fat’s scientific names, which include hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.


What to know about it: Despite its bad reputation, cholesterol, which is a fat-like substance, isn’t all bad: A wealth of science shows that saturated fat, not dietary cholesterol, increases blood cholesterol levels, which in turn is linked with increased risk of heart disease. Your body needs cholesterol for important jobs like manufacturing vitamin D and hormones, and keeping cells and tissues healthy – your body makes what it needs.

Where you’ll find it: Cholesterol only occurs in animal foods, especially red meat, like steak or burgers, sausages, chicken, eggs, cheese, and whole milk. Foods that are higher in dietary saturated fat, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, are also likely higher in cholesterol.

Verdict: Don’t sweat it.
There are no specific recommendations to actively limit dietary cholesterol, but that’s because limiting foods high in saturated fats naturally caps your cholesterol intake. That said, advice regarding cholesterol intake can be individualized, so talk to your doctor if you are concerned.

Fat FAQs

Q: If I’m trying to lose weight, is it better to follow a low-fat or a low-carb diet?

A: WeightWatchers is the number one doctor-recommended weight-loss program, according to a 2019 survey of 500 doctors who recommend weight loss programs to patients. But when it comes to allocating your Points Budget, the best approach is the one you find easiest to stick to: A recent Stanford University study of 609 adults found that those 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 diet). What was key: Those on either plan changed their diets to include more whole foods and vegetables, with less sugar and less refined grains. In other words, there’s no evidence-based consensus on the “best way” to lose weight. Consuming fewer calories (or staying within your Budget when following the WeightWatchers program, which distills complicated nutritional information based on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein) leads to weight loss. But making lasting lifestyle and behavioral changes is an essential component for losing weight and keeping it off for good.

Q: Is it true that butter is healthier than margarine?

A: Not true! In the past, some margarines contained trans fats, which can affect heart health. But now that manufacturers have worked to eliminate trans fats as an ingredient, that’s no longer a problem. What’s more? “Most margarines are substantially lower in saturated fats than butter,” says Harriet Hall, MD, a physician and editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog.

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 diabetes coach and registered dietitian, Hope Paul.

As for claims that margarine is a “synthetic” product closely related to plastic? You’ve got nothing to worry about. “Synthetic means made by a chemical process to imitate a natural product,” Dr. Hall explains. “Margarine does imitate butter, but it’s made from another natural product, vegetable oil.”

Q: How much fat can you eat in a day?

A: 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.

Because foods higher in saturated fat are higher in Points, WeightWatchers guides you towards a healthier pattern of eating that’s lower in saturated fat. In other words, we’ve done all the hard work for you, so no need to interpret food labels or work out saturated fat grams.

Q: What's the deal with coconut oil?

A: Coconut oil is high in saturated fats: It contains 82 percent saturated fat—much more than butter, which is 52 percent saturated fat. That said, it has the same 9 calories per gram, or 120 calories per tablespoon, as olive oil and all other fats.

Because your Points Budget will guide you toward a pattern of eating that is lower in saturated fat, if you like the taste of coconut oil, then there’s no reason to deprive yourself to reach your goals on WeightWatchers.

That said, replacing oils that are high in saturated fat with oils high in unsaturated fat (like olive and rapeseed oil) can save you PersonalPoints. Check it out:

1 tsp

1 tbsp

Unsaturated fats
Olive, sunflower, and sesame

1 P

5 P

Coconut oil

3 P

9 P

The bottom line: Your choice of oil is totally up to you.

Q: Can you eat too little fat?

A: If you’ve gotten this far and still wonder whether fat-free is the way to go, listen up: Although there’s no recommended minimum, fat is necessary for cell growth, hormone production, nutrient absorption, and heart health. In other words? Your body needs it!  

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