Dietary Fat and Cholesterol

Young women's version of this guide

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Dietary fat found in food is important for your health and is needed for normal growth and development of your body. Dietary fat has many different functions in your body, such as:

  • Providing long lasting energy
  • Helping you feel full after eating
  • Helping your body 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 your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins from food (Vitamins A, D, E, K)
  • 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 more than one type of fat, but in different balances (or amounts).

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:
AvocadosOlive Oil
AlmondsPeanut Butter
Canola OilPeanut Oil
CashewsSunflower Oil
Hazelnuts
Nutrition Tip: Try to increase your intake of monounsaturated fat by including these foods into your meals or snacks. For example, add avocado to a salad at lunch, or spread peanut butter on toast for a filling breakfast.

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 (aka how your body responds to getting sick or having an infection). Linolenic fatty acids are a special type of fat called Omega-3 fats which are known to have many health benefits for your body and brain.

Good Sources of Polyunsaturated Fat Include:
Canola Oil*Salmon*
Chia Seeds*Sardines*
Corn OilSesame Seeds
Cottonseed OilSoybean Oil
Flaxseeds and Flaxseed Oil*Soybeans
HerringSunflower Oil
Mackerel*Trout*
Pine NutsTuna*
Pumpkin Seeds Walnuts*
* Indicates a good source of Omega-3 Fats (additional sources include soy-based foods, legumes, and tofu)
Nutrition Tip: Increase your intake of Omega-3 fats by having one of the starred foods above every day!  You can add chia seeds to a morning bowl of oatmeal or make a lentil soup for lunch or dinner.

 

Saturated fat is also called “animal fat” because many of the richest sources of saturated fat are from 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 Fat:
Butter
Cheese
Coconut Oil
Cream
Eggs
Ice Cream
Lard
Palm or Palm Kernel Oil
Poultry Skin
Red Meat
Whole Milk
Nutrition Tip: Try to decrease your intake of saturated fat by swapping a saturated fat source for an unsaturated fat source.  For example, you can swap butter for olive oil when cooking.

Trans fat is formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats. These are sometimes called partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are made artificially by food manufacturers. They were originally thought to be the healthier option to replace saturated fats. However, research shows that trans fats are 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:
CookiesFried Foods
CrackersMargarine (where the nutrition label does not say 0 grams of trans fat)
DonutsMuffins
Fast FoodShortening
Foods that contain and list partially hydrogenated oils
Nutrition Tip: Try to do away with trans fat in your diet, especially when it comes to packaged foods.  Look at the nutrition label to see if the product contains trans fat.

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, including fruits and vegetables, and protein.

What are some alternatives to saturated or trans fats?

Instead of using butter for cooking or spreading, try using olive oil or spreadable olive oil. Choosing leaner types of protein such as beans or white-meat chicken are good ways to decrease eating saturated fat found in red meat. To avoid trans fats, check ingredient lists for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and avoid products that contain this such as fried foods, shelf-stable baked goods, and coffee creamer.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatlike 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: HDL (commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol) and LDL (or “bad” 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, beans, nuts, legumes, and grains don’t contain cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol can be affected by the foods you eat and your family’s cholesterol history. Your body naturally makes cholesterol. The amount of cholesterol that is found in the foods you eat is different from the cholesterol level in your blood. Eating large portions of foods high in saturated fat can increase the cholesterol level in your blood. Your medical provider may check your blood cholesterol to see if you’re at risk of having heart disease or have a family history of high cholesterol. To see a list of foods that can potentially raise your “bad” cholesterol, see the saturated fat table above.  Remember, the portion size is important.  Having two eggs for breakfast or a slice or two of cheese on your sandwich will not make an impact on your cholesterol level.  Having large amounts of these foods every day or eating them many times a day may raise your “bad” cholesterol over time.