IMAGE Fat gets a bad rap, mostly for its association with weight gain and heart disease. However, fats are an important part of a balanced diet. Our bodies need fat for warmth, protection, and to carry out vital functions.

The fats we eat effect the amount and type of cholesterol in our blood. There are 3 major types of cholesterol in the body, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and triglycerides. High levels of LDLs (known as bad cholesterol) and triglycerides are a major risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD), which leads to heart attack or stroke. However, high levels of HDLs (known as good cholesterol) reduce the risk of CAD.

The trick is to know which fats are good and which are bad and create a balanced diet with this knowledge. Dietary choices can be confusing but some simple fat facts below may help.

The Bad

You probably have heard about saturated and trans fats. These fats do more harm than good. They raise you bad cholesterol levels and lower your good cholesterol. Limit these fats as much as possible.

Saturated fats are associated with animal products, such as red meat, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter, and whole-fat dairy. It can also be found in in bakery items and fried foods. Fortunately, you can control the amount of saturated fat in your diet without having to completely give up these foods. Look for low fat version of meat and dairy and limit your portion sizes of foods with saturated fats.

Most trans fats are additives, that are generally considered the worse type of fat. You can find them in deep fried foods, and bakery items like cookies and donuts. On food labels, trans fats may appear as partially hydrogenated oils. Again, these treats do not have to be completely eliminated, however, look for options that are made with healthier fats. For example, many restaurants have chosen to eliminate or reduce trans fats in their foods. Again, limit your portion sizes. This will allow you to eat your favorite foods without the negative consequences.

That's the bad news, now on to the good.

The Good

Good fats help lower the bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, while boosting the good (HDL) cholesterol. They should be the preferred choice in your diet. These fats are mostly plant-based and can be found on food labels as monounsaturateded fats or polyunsaturated fats.

Monosaturated fats give you energy and help keep your body warm. This type of fat can be found in foods like vegetable oils, avocados, peanut butter, nuts, and seeds. In addition to their fat benefits, monounsaturated fats also contain vitamin E and antioxidants.

Polyunsaturated fats may also contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are heart healthy fatty acids which your body cannot produce on its own. This type of fat can be found in soybean, corn, or safflower oils. It can also be found in dark meat fish, like salmon, or trout.

But before you eat too much of a good thing, remember that fats are very high in calories. A little bit goes a long way. In general, calories from all fats should no more than 30% of your total calories.

Now you know what is good for you. The next step is to learn to make those changes to your menu.

The Scoop on Spreads

So, which is better? Butter, margarine, or something else? When looking for a spread, keep in mind some differences when you read the label:

  • Compare trans fat content. Try to find spreads with no trans fats.
  • Look for the daily value for saturated fat and choose the lowest amount.
  • Try alternative spreads made with:
    • Soybean oil
    • Canola oil
    • Olive oil

If you find labels that are alike, eat what you think tastes best, but be aware of the fat content. You may find a healthier choice that tastes better than butter if you try different items.

How to Make the Change

Making the change is not as difficult as you may think. Many food companies have made changes to their product to offer healthier fat choices. The first thing is to learn to read nutrition information on food labels. Try practicing at home before you go to the store. Look at what you already have in your kitchen.

Next, you will want to replace as many saturated fats with unsaturated fats as possible. Remember, fats eaten in moderation are a part of a healthy diet, so do not be afraid to add the right ingredients to your menu. Here are some dietary recommendations:

  • Use more fat-free or low-fat dairy like milk, cheese, yogurt, or cream.
  • Look for lean cuts of red meat.
  • Substitute meals of red meat with fish.
  • Replace solid fats in recipes with oil when possible.
  • Try to enhance a meal with a handful nuts, beans, legumes, or seeds when you can.
  • Try using walnuts or sunflower seeds as a snack substitute.
  • Eat food with natural oils, like olives, nuts, avocados, or fish.