Dietary Fat and Cholesterol

Young women's version of this guide
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iStock_000003606135SmallWhat is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that’s found in animal products and is also made in your liver. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D (which is important for healthy bones), and bile (which helps your body use dietary fat). There are two types of cholesterol:

Dietary cholesterol comes from the foods that you eat. It’s only found in foods that come from animals, such as eggs, meat, fish, dairy products, and butter. It’s also found in foods made with butter, including cake, cookies, and muffins. Fruits, vegetables, and grains don’t contain cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol is the cholesterol that is found in your blood. Some of this cholesterol is made by your liver and some it comes from the food you eat. There are two main types of cholesterol in your blood. HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in blood. LDL cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol found in blood. Research has shown that high levels of HDL may help protect against heart disease, while high levels of LDL may increase a person’s risk for heart disease.

Blood cholesterol is affected by many different things, including the type of fat you eat in your diet, how much you exercise, how much you weigh, and your family history (if your mother or father has high cholesterol, you may too). Aerobic exercise (which keeps your heart strong) is helpful for increasing your HDL cholesterol levels. Try fun aerobic activities such as bike riding, walking, jogging, or playing soccer.

What is dietary fat?

Dietary fat is the fat found in food. It’s important for your health, and is needed for normal growth and development of your body. Dietary fat has many different functions in your body, which include:

  • Providing long lasting energy
  • Helping you feel full after eating
  • Helping make hormones
  • Forming part of your brain and nervous system
  • Forming cell membranes for every cell in your body
  • Carrying vitamins throughout your body
    Helping to regulate your body temperature and keep you warm

What are the different types of dietary fat?

The four main types of fat found in food are monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Most foods have a different balance (or amounts) of these types of fats.

Monounsaturated fat is a “heart healthy” type of fat. Research shows that monounsaturated fats may help to decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Good sources of Monounsaturated fat include:

  • Avocados
  • Almonds
  • Canola Oil
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Olive Oil
  • Peanut Butter
  • Peanut Oil
  • Sunflower Oil

Nutrition Tip: Try to increase your intake of monounsaturated fat.

Polyunsaturated fat is also a “heart healthy” type of fat. There are two essential fatty acids (linolenic and linoleic) that your body uses to make substances that control blood pressure, blood clotting, and your immune system response. Linolenic fatty acids are a special type of fat called Omega-3 fats which are known to have many health benefits.

Good sources of Polyounsaturated fat include:

  • Canola Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Cottonseed Oil
  • Flaxseeds
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Pine Nuts
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Sardines
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Soybeans
  • Soybean Oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Walnuts
  • Salmon

Good sources of Omega-3 fats include:

  • Canola Oil
  • Flaxseeds, Flaxseed Oil
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Mackerel
  • Halibut
  • Lake Trout
  • Legumes
  • Nuts (such as walnuts)
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Soy based foods (such as soybeans, soynuts)
  • Tofu
  • Tuna

Nutrition Tip: Try to increase your intake of Omega-3 fats.

Saturated fat is also called “animal fat” because many of the richest sources of saturated from are foods that originally come from animals. Although your body needs a little bit of saturated fat to stay healthy, eating too much saturated fat may increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Sources of saturated fatHealthier options
ButterOlive Oil
CheeseLow-fat or reduced fat cheese
Coconut OilCanola oil
CreamLow-fat milk or fat-free creamer
EggsEgg whites or substitute
Ice CreamFrozen yogurt or reduced-fat ice cream
LardOil or all-vegetable shortening (look for 0 grams of trans fat on the nutrition facts label)
Palm or Palm Kernal OilCanola oil
Poultry SkinPoultry without the skin
Red MeatWhite meat poultry or fish
Whole MilkLow-fat milk

Nutrition Tip: Try to decrease your intake of saturated fat.

Trans fat is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats. Trans fats are made artificially by food manufacturers. They were originally thought to be the healthier option to replace saturated fats, but research shows that they’re by far the least healthy type of fat. Trans fats increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease HDL (“healthy”) cholesterol and should be avoided.

Sources of Trans dietary fat include:

  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Donuts
  • Fast Food
  • Fried Foods
  • Margarine (where the nutrition label doesn’t say 0 grams of trans fat)
  • Muffins
  • Shortening
  • Foods that contain and list partially hydrogenated oils

Nutrition Tip: Try to do away with trans fat in your diet.

How much fat should I eat?

Because there are many health benefits that come from eating fat, there’s no need to follow a low-fat diet. The key is to choose mostly healthy types of fat. About 30% of the energy we eat should come from fat. The rest of your energy should come from a combination of carbohydrates and protein.