Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: Everything You Need to Know

Good fats, bad fats and everything in between—we're breaking down everything you need to know about those mysterious fats!

If you can’t seem to keep up with which fats to eat and how much of them you should have, you’re not the only one who’s confused! The “skinny” on fat seems to change almost daily.

Fat has certainly gotten a bad name over the past few years. But the fact of the matter is, we all need some fat in our diet. Fat provides our bodies with energy and is one of three main food components (the others are protein and carbohydrates). It’s also essential to help our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals.

We know there are different types of fat and that some are better for you than others—so where do we start? When you hear the term, “good fats,” it’s usually referring to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. “Bad fats” include trans fats; saturated fats were once considered bad but now fall in the OK category.

What Are Good Fats?

One trick to identifying good fats is that they’re usually liquid at room temperature (think olive oil or flaxseed oil). This list of the top healthy fats is a great place to start.

Monounsaturated fats include avocados, olive oil and sunflower oil. These plant-based fats are a main component of the Mediterranean diet (here’s a tasty week-long meal plan) and have been linked with better heart health.

Polyunsaturated fats include corn oil and safflower oil and are “essential fats.” That means that our bodies need them to function but cannot make them; so we need to consume polyunsaturated fats from our diets. These types of fats help with nerve health and muscle movement. To make sure you’re getting enough, add fatty fish, walnuts and canola oil to your diet.

What Are Bad Fats?

The fats to avoid at all costs are called trans fats. These fats are processed using hydrogenation; they turn healthy fats into solid form to make them last longer. Among the worst foods for your cholesterol levels, trans fats can be found in processed foods like margarine and are known to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease good (HDL) cholesterol. They cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to a host of chronic diseases over time. According to the Harvard Medical School, for every 2 percent of calories you eat from trans fats each day, your risk of heart disease goes up by 23 percent. To avoid these, read food labels carefully and look for terms like “trans fats” and “partially hydrogenated oils.”

Saturated Fats

Lastly, saturated fats: these are not as bad as trans fats but still need to be limited in our diets. Saturated fats have been linked to high cholesterol levels and are found mostly in red meat, dairy products and egg yolks. It’s best to eat those foods sparingly.

As with any other food, moderation is the key when it comes to consuming fats. Try to eat a variety of foods so you’ll get a good overall nutritional balance in your diet. And if you’re really craving that cookie, go ahead and indulge; just be sure to avoid the entire batch.

Carrie Madormo, RN
Carrie is a health writer and nurse who specializes in healthy eating and wellness through food. With a master’s degree in public health from the Medical College of Wisconsin, she strives to translate the latest health and nutrition research into interesting, actionable articles. During her six years at Taste of Home, Carrie has answered hundreds of reader questions about health and nutrition, such as if pomegranate seeds are safe to eat, why pregnant women crave pickles and how much caffeine is in a shot of espresso. Carrie is also a former health coach and food blogger.