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Healthy Eating: Cutting Unhealthy Fats From Your Diet


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Foods like cheese, butter, sausage, and desserts may taste good to you, but they can have a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol. Eating too much of these unhealthy fats could lead to high cholesterol and heart disease.

Start with small changes first. Use heart-healthy olive or canola oil instead of butter for cooking. Drink fat-free or low-fat milk instead of 2% milk or whole milk. Pick leaner cuts of meat.

Use this topic as a guide for making healthy choices.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.

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Unhealthy fats

  • Saturated fat. Saturated fats are mostly in animal foods, such as meat and dairy foods. Tropical oils, such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter, are also saturated fats.
  • Trans fat. Trans fats include shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are made when a liquid fat is turned into a solid fat (for example, when corn oil is made into stick margarine). They are in many processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and snack foods.
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is only in animal products, such as eggs, dairy foods, and meats.

These unhealthy fats can raise your total cholesterol and your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.

Healthy fats

  • Monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but get solid when refrigerated. Eating foods that are high in this fat may help lower your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, raise your "good" (HDL) cholesterol, and lower your chances of getting heart disease. This fat is found in canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, olives, avocados, nuts, and nut butters.
  • Polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. They are in safflower, sunflower, and corn oils. They are also the main fat in seafood. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids may lower your chances of getting heart disease. Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel contain these healthy fatty acids. So do ground flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, soybeans, walnuts, and seeds.

Even though it's better to eat healthier fats, it's still important to be careful about how much of them you eat. All fats are high in calories, so watch your serving sizes.

Test Your Knowledge

If I stop cooking with butter and use olive or canola oil instead, I can reduce the amount of unhealthy fat I eat and replace it with a much healthier fat.

True
False

Eating foods that contain saturated fats can raise the LDL ("bad") cholesterol in your blood. Having a high level of LDL cholesterol increases your chance of clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack.

Trans fats also are unhealthy. Try as much as possible to avoid eating them. Trans fat raises the level of "bad" LDL cholesterol in your blood and lowers the "good" HDL cholesterol in your blood.

HDL cholesterol is important. It helps clear the bad cholesterol from your blood so it does not clog your arteries. A high level of HDL can lower your risk of having a heart attack.

Remember, your body needs some fat to be healthy. Use the example below as a guide for eating less saturated fat.

In general:

  • No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. This is about 20 grams of fat in a 2,000-calorie diet.
  • No more than 10% of your daily calories should come from polyunsaturated fat. This is about 20 grams in a 2,000-calorie diet.
  • Monounsaturated fats can be up to 15% of your daily calories. This is about 25 to 30 grams in a 2,000-calorie diet.

If you're not sure how much fat you should be eating or how many calories you need each day to stay at a healthy weight, talk to a registered dietitian. He or she can help you create a plan that's right for you.

Test Your Knowledge

As I try to eat less unhealthy fat, I especially need to avoid trans fats.

True
False

Use the following chart as a guide.

Options for replacing unhealthy fats
Food group Limit foods that are high in unhealthy fats Make healthier choices
Meat, poultry, and fish

Regular ground beef, fatty or highly marbled cuts, spare ribs, organ meat, poultry with skin, fried chicken, fried fish, fried shellfish, lunch meat, bologna, salami, sausage, hot dogs

Low-fat ground beef (97% lean), ground turkey breast (without skin added), meats with fat trimmed off before cooking, skinless chicken, low-fat or fat-free lunch meats, baked fish

Dairy products and eggs

Whole milk and 2% milk; whole-milk yogurt, most cheeses, and cream cheese; whole-milk cottage cheese, sour cream, and ice cream; cream; half-and-half; whipping cream; nondairy creamer; whipped topping

Low-fat (1%) or fat-free milk and cheeses, low-fat or nonfat yogurt, egg substitutes, egg whites

Fats and oils

Coconut oil, palm oil, butter, lard, shortening, bacon and bacon fat, stick margarine, peanut butter that has been hydrogenated (the no-stir kind)

Canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, soft margarines with no trans fats and no more than one-third of the total fat from saturated fat, natural peanut butter that has not been hydrogenated

Breads and cereals

Breads in which eggs, fat, or butter is a major ingredient; most granolas (unless fat-free or low-fat); high-fat crackers; store-bought pastries and muffins

Regular breads, cereals, rice, corn tortillas, pasta, and low-fat crackers. Choose whole grains as much as possible.

Fruits and vegetables

Fried vegetables; coconut; vegetables cooked with butter, cheese, or cream sauce

All fruits and vegetables that do not have added fat

Sweets and desserts

Ice cream; store-bought pies, cakes, doughnuts, and cookies made with coconut oil, palm oil, or hydrogenated oil; chocolate candy

Fruit; frozen yogurt; low-fat or nonfat versions of treats such as ice cream; cakes and cookies made with unsaturated fats and/or those made with cocoa powder

Tips for healthier meals

Try some of these ideas:

  • Fill up on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Think of meat as a side dish instead of as the main part of your meal.
  • Try main dishes that use whole wheat pasta, brown rice, dried beans, or vegetables.
  • Use cooking methods with little or no fat, such as broiling, steaming, or grilling. Use cooking spray instead of oil. If you use oil, use a monounsaturated oil, such as canola or olive oil.
  • Trim fat from meats before you cook them. Drain off fat after you brown the meat or while you are roasting it.
  • Chill soups and stews after you cook them so that you can skim off the fat after it gets hard.
  • To get more omega-3 fatty acids, have fish twice a week. Add ground flaxseed to cereal, soups, and smoothies. Sprinkle walnuts on salads.
  • When you bake muffins or breads, replace part of the fat ingredient (oil, butter, margarine) with applesauce, or use canola oil instead of butter or shortening.
  • Read food labelsClick here to see an illustration. on canned, bottled, or packaged foods. Choose those with little saturated fat and no trans fat.

Restaurant meals

If you eat out often, it may be hard to avoid unhealthy fats. Try these tips:

  • Order foods that are broiled or poached rather than fried or breaded. Restaurants often use trans fats (hydrogenated oils) for frying foods.
  • Cut back on the amount of butter or margarine that you use on bread. Use small amounts of olive oil instead.
  • Order sauces, gravies, and salad dressings on the side, and use only a little.
  • When you order pasta, choose tomato sauce rather than cream sauce.
  • Ask for salsa with a baked potato instead of sour cream, butter, cheese, or bacon.
  • Don't upgrade your meal to a larger size.
  • Watch portion sizes. Share an entree, or take part of your food home to eat as another meal. Share appetizers and desserts.

Fat-free foods

Sometimes a fat-free food isn't the best choice. Fat-free cookies, candies, chips, and frozen treats can still be high in sugar and calories. Some fat-free foods have more calories than regular ones. Eat fat-free foods in moderation, as you would other foods.

Test Your Knowledge

To eat less saturated fat, I'm going to try to choose leaner meats. I'll trim the fat off the meat that I do eat, and I'll eat skinless chicken.

True
False

Now that you've learned what fats to cut first, you can make healthier choices for meals.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerSarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last RevisedFebruary 4, 2011

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