• Karen C Uthus

Fat Facts & Fallacies

Updated: May 1

We have been programmed to believe that fats are bad for us, BUT not all fats are the same. Some fats are harmful, but other fats are critical to optimal health. What are the differences?


FACTS: The characteristics of fat dictate how it performs in our body. As with ANY nutrient, amount of consumption is also a factor. Each food has a different fat profile and it is important to recognize which is the predominant fatty acid in the foods you consume.

Getting the best fats in your diet requires more than label reading since whole natural foods do not come with labels. Striving for an optimal balanced healthy diet requires learning which foods to include, which foods to moderate and those foods to avoid. Reading labels on packaged items will assist you in assessing fats as both an ingredient or as a cooking medium (e.g., oils). Additionally, learning about fats will arm you with information when selecting foods in a restaurant.


Low-fat foods are best. This is not always the case. Some foods are naturally low-fat foods, like whole grains and beans, and are an important component of a healthy balanced diet.

Other foods that are processed to remove the fat, making them a low or reduced-fat food have added sugar and/or are high in refined carbohydrates. This has negative health implications (e.g., leading to obesity, blood sugar regulation issues and heart health risks). It is important to understand the difference, be aware of the source of fat (i.e. animal vs. plant) and what is used to replace the fat removed, like sugar and /or refined carbohydrates. Many times selecting a perceived “healthier” low-fat processed food choice can lead to overindulgence and more calories then intended.


Healthy fats are IMPORTANT for a health body and mind.


· Make cell integrity possible.

· Add texture and flavor to food.

· Slow rate of absorption, thus leading to better blood sugar regulation.

· Are critical to the processing the fat-soluble vitamins, i.e., Vitamins A, D, E and K.

· Offer the largest source of energy per kcal, contributing 9kcal/gram.

· Coat the nerve cells making electrical transmission of nerve signals possible.

· Cushion the organs in the body making it “shock proof.”

· Insulate body against dramatic temperature change.

· Contribute to precursors that participate in blood clotting, blood pressure, and immune functions.

· Contribute to the health of the retina of the eye and vision acuity.

· Contribute to healthy skin and hair.

· Are critical to the formation and function of hormones (e.g., sex hormones, cholesterol, bile acids, Vitamin D (to process).

The fats are broken down into UNSATURATED (both mono- and poly-), SATURATED and TRANS FATS.


Unsaturated fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered to be the “GOOD” fats. Characteristically unsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature and like any fat can degrade if exposed to excessive light, oxygen and /or heat.

Examples of unsaturated fats include avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, fish and many vegetable oils (e.g. olive, canola, peanut, safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean). Omega-3 & Omega-6 fatty acids are examples of types of polyunsaturated fats that are considered essential to the diet to meet biological needs and balancing inflammatory and anti-inflammatory qualities of the immune system. Both processes are normal and necessary.

According to Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institute of Health, focusing on increasing ingestion of Omega-3 fatty acids is the best tactic (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018) to compensate for the prevalence of Omega-6 fatty acids in the standard American diet.

Examples of Omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna and herring. Other examples include soy, chia seeds, flax seeds, and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale. Animals that are grass-fed, as opposed to grain fed, also produce products that are higher in Omega-3.


Saturated fats are to be consumed in moderation. These fats are primarily animal-based foods (e.g., meat and dairy) and quality of source is of importance here. There are plant-based fats that are saturated like coconut, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, palm oil and the products made from them (eg. candies, pastries, cookies, donuts and pies).

Saturated fats play a role in raising blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and therefore increase risk of heart disease. It is recommended to exercise caution when incorporating saturated fats in diet, as it is acknowledged that different people respond differently to increase in intake.


Trans fats are an example of a “BAD” fat. Trans fats can be found in nature but are predominately found in commercially processed and fried foods. Trans fats showed up in the American diet with the mass production of baked goods that were cheap to mass

produce and offered increased shelf life.

Examples of foods that may contain trans fats include, breads, pies, cookies and cakes made with a vegetable oil based fat that was readily available, less costly and offered an increased shelf life. In addition, many fast food restaurants use trans fats in their fried products. The negative health effects of high trans fat consumption is linked to obesity, high blood pressure and poor coronary heart health.



This type of fat has a different chemical structure and is found in animal based foods (eg. eggs, dairy, meat, poultry and shellfish.) The body also makes cholesterol in the liver. It serves many purposes (cell membrane integrity, part of nerve coating (myelin sheath), necessary for synthesis of Vitamin D in skin, creation of bile acids (to break down fats) and a component of many of the hormones in the body (eg. sex hormones & stress hormone).

A diet high in fiber assists the body in regulating cholesterol by binding with it and facilitating elimination from the body.


Steer towards incorporating “GOOD” fats in the diet and reducing and/or eliminating “BAD” fats. Saturated fat intake should be limited. Cholesterol is better balanced by increasing fiber consumption. Tap into how your body responds to the foods you eat to maximize the benefits of the nutrients you consume.

Disclaimer: This website blog does not provide medical assessment, diagnosis or treatment. Information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please seek appropriate professional medical advice as needed.


Ask An Expert: Healthy fats. (2018, August 18). Retrieved from


Grosvenor, M. B., & Smolin, L. A. (2012). Visualizing nutrition: Everyday choices (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Labensky, S.R., Hause, A.M. & Martel, P. (2011). On cooking: A textbook of culinary fundamentals(5th ed.). New Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Saturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Modulation by Replacement Nutrients. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 12(6), 384–390. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11883-010-0131-6

US Department of Health and Human Services /National Institutes of Health. (2018). Omega-3 fatty acids fact sheet for health professionals published by the Office of Dietary Supplements. Bethesda, MD: Author.

What should I eat?: Fats and Cholesterol. (2018, August 18). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/

Whitney, E., & Rolfes, S. R. (2005). Understanding nutrition (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

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