When it comes to dietary fat, what matters most is the type of fat you eat. Contrary to past dietary advice promoting low-fat diets, newer research shows that healthy fats are necessary and beneficial for health.
- When food manufacturers reduce fat, they often replace it with carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, or other starches. Our bodies digest these refined carbohydrates and starches very quickly, affecting blood sugar and insulin levels and possibly resulting in weight gain and disease. (1-3)
- Findings from the Nurses’ Health Study (4) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (5) show that no link between the overall percentage of calories from fat and any important health outcome, including cancer, heart disease, and weight gain.
Rather than adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating beneficial “good” fats and avoiding harmful “bad” fats. Fat is an important part of a healthy diet. Choose foods with “good” unsaturated fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid “bad” trans fat.
- “Good” unsaturated fats — Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — lower disease risk. Foods high in good fats include vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
- “Bad” fats — trans fats — increase disease risk, even when eaten in small quantities. Foods containing trans fats are primarily in processed foods made with trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil. Fortunately, trans fats have been eliminated from many of these foods.
- Saturated fats, while not as harmful as trans fats, by comparison with unsaturated fats negatively impact health and are best consumed in moderation. Foods containing large amounts of saturated fat include red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream. Some plant-based fats like coconut oil and palm oil are also rich in saturated fat.
- When you cut back on foods like red meat and butter, replace them with fish, beans, nuts, and healthy oils instead of refined carbohydrates.
Read more about healthy fats in this “Ask the Expert” with HSPH’s Dr. Walter Willett and Amy Myrdal Miller, M.S., R.D., formerly of The Culinary Institute of America
1. Siri-Tarino, P.W., et al., Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Curr Atheroscler Rep, 2010. 12(6): p. 384-90.
2. Hu, F.B., Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat? Am J Clin Nutr, 2010. 91(6): p. 1541-2.
3. Jakobsen, M.U., et al., Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index. Am J Clin Nutr, 2010. 91(6): p. 1764-8.
4. Hu, F.B., et al., Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med, 1997. 337(21): p. 1491-9.
5. Ascherio, A., et al., Dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease in men: cohort follow up study in the United States. BMJ, 1996. 313(7049): p. 84-90.
6. Hu, F.B., J.E. Manson, and W.C. Willett, Types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr, 2001. 20(1): p. 5-19.
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