It is a common misconception that dietary fat is bad for you and should be avoided at all costs.  In fact, fats are essential for numerous body functions, including cell membrane repair, body warmth, organ protection and energy.

Some vitamins, appropriately called fat-soluble vitamins, actually need fat to dissolve and be absorbed by your body.  What is important to remember about fats, is that some are healthier for you than others – and the types of fats you choose to consume will directly impact your health.

Unhealthy dietary fats include saturated fat and trans fat.  These fats are commonly found in animal food sources.  Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Trans fats are most often a result of food processing and are often referred to as synthetic or industrial.  Synthetic trans fats can increase LDL and lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol), which can also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

On the other hand, healthy dietary fats include monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fat (PUFA).  MUFAs are found in many food sources, including oils.  PUFAs are most commonly found in plant-based foods.

Research has shown that a diet rich in both of these healthy fats can improve cholesterol levels, decreasing your risk of heart disease, and may also positively affect insulin and blood sugar levels – important considerations for those with type 2 diabetes.  Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of PUFA often found in fatty fish and may be beneficial to your heart by decreasing the risk of coronary artery disease, lowering blood pressure and protecting against irregular heartbeats.

Here are some tips to help you choose healthy fats – remember, though, that even healthy fats are high in calories, so be sure to consume in moderation.

  • Focus your food choices towards MUFAs and PUFAs and away from saturated and trans fats.  When grocery shopping, be sure to read the nutrition label carefully and only choose foods that have no trans fats.  Also try to avoid “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”
  • Use plant-based oils when cooking and baking.  Olive and canola oils are much healthier to cook and bake with than butter.
  • Incorporate at least one serving of omega-3 fats every day.  Omega-3s are found in salmon, tuna, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil and spinach.
  • Reduce consumption of red meat and dairy.  These foods are high in saturated fat, so actively choose leaner cuts and consume them in moderation. Chicken, fish and nuts are good substitutes and provide healthier sources of fats.  Instead of adding cheese to your sandwiches or salads, opt for avocado slices instead.