Heart smart: All about fats

Eating has a big impact on your heart health. In fact, eating healthier can improve several of your heart risks at once. For instance, it helps you manage weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. Getting to know your fats is a great first step toward heart healthy eating.

Did you know that there are numerous types of fat? Your body makes its own fat from taking in excess calories. Some fats are found in foods from plants and animals and are referred to as dietary fat.  Dietary fat is a macronutrient that provides energy for your body – basically, it’s necessary for you.

Fat is essential to your health because it supports a number of body functions.  Some vitamins – A, D, E and K, for example – must have fat to dissolve so your body can absorb them. However, fat is high in calories.  Too much fat can lead to excess calories and ultimately, weight gain.  Excess weight is linked to poor health.  Additionally, some types of dietary fat can play a role in cardiovascular disease.

Research about dietary fat is always evolving.  A growing body of research suggests that when it comes to dietary fat, you should focus on eating healthy fats and avoiding unhealthy fats.

Learn your risk for heart disease with our free online heart health profiler at askAAMC.org/HeartHealth and take the first step toward having a healthy heart for life.

The harmful fats

Trans fats and saturated fats are the ones you should limit or stay away from. Trans fats can occur naturally in some foods in small amounts, but most are made from oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation.  These can increase unhealthy low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and lower healthy high-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol, which increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Trans fats also create inflammation, which experts link to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. They contribute to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Saturated fat is common in the American diet. This type of fat is also associated with your risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.  It comes mainly from animal source foods, such as red meat, bacon, cheeses, coconut oil and full-fat dairy products. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol levels.

READ MORE: Coconut oil: Is it healthy or not?

The good fats

Healthier dietary fats are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats.  Foods made up of mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature – olive oil, peanut oil and safflower oil, for example.  Foods high in omega-fatty acids include: flaxseed; oils, such as canola, flaxseed, soybean and nuts; and other seeds, such as walnuts, butternuts and sunflower.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers the following recommendations about fat intake:

  • Avoid trans fat.
  • Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories a day.
  • Replace saturated fat with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Roughly speaking, 1 tablespoon of all oils are about 125 calories. So next time keep in mind, though not all fats are equal in composition, too much of even the ‘good’ type of fat can be too much. As with everything in life, you need a balance.


Ann Caldwell and Maureen Shackelford are nutritionists and registered dietitians at Anne Arundel Medical Center. To reach them, call 443-481-5555.

Originally published Feb. 4, 2019. Last updated Feb. 7, 2020.