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Good and Bad Fats: The Ultimate Guide

Now that science has found that some fats are good fats, it's all about avoiding the bad guys.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

Remember when any fat was bad fat? When the only difference between a croissant and a Krispy Kreme was snob appeal? Now that (happily) science has found that some fats are good fats, it's all about avoiding the bad guys. But if sorting out omega-3s from saturated fats makes you want to drown your frustration in a quarter-pounder and fries (a whopping 56 grams of the ickiest stuff), here's a simple list that rates fats, from the top dog to the don't-even-think-about-it.

TOP FATS: THE OMEGA-3s

Among the best fats on the planet, omega-3s add years to your life by dramatically reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. They may also stave off arthritis, depression, and some cancers, and might even tame menstrual cramps and postworkout soreness. Looking for clear, soft skin and great hair? Omega-3s do that, too.

Eat these frequently:

  • Fatty fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, and tuna
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Walnuts

GOOD FATS: THE MONOS

All monounsaturated fats are kind to your heart because they raise good HDL cholesterol and lower bad LDL cholesterol (the kind that clogs arteries). But virgin olive oil, the MVP of monounsaturates, does more. For starters, it contains micronutrients that are needed for hormone and enzyme production. But olive oil also boasts compounds that may fight breast and colon cancer as well as boost the cancer-fighting power of other foods.

Delicious sources are:

  • Olives
  • Virgin olive oil (be sure it's virgin; processing destroys nutrients)
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut and other nut oils
  • Nuts
  • Avocados

PRETTY GOOD FATS: THE POLYS

Most polyunsaturated fats are heart-friendly, but, with the exception of omega-3s, they don't have the star power of other healthy fats. Also, poly fats contain omega-6s, which are healthy unless you get too many of them -- and most Americans get up to 25 times more omega-6s than they need. Omega-6s should be eaten more sparingly because they can overwhelm the superstar omega-3s. Overall, try to get most of your polyunsaturated fats from omega-3 sources.

Find them in:

  • Corn, soybean, safflower, canola, sunflower, and cottonseed oils
  • Fatty fish (canned light tuna counts)

LOUSY FATS: THE SATS

Saturated fats are mainly trouble because they raise blood cholesterol to artery-clogging levels. In one study, eating a single slice of carrot cake and drinking a milkshake that were high in sat fat hindered the body's heart-protective functions. Loading up on saturated fats may also harm brain molecules that help form memories, raising the risk of dementia.

Skimp or skip:

  • Meats, particularly with visible fat
  • Poultry skin, fat, and dark meat
  • Whole-milk dairy foods, including butter, full-fat cheeses, ice cream, sour cream
  • Most hard margarines (those in stick form)
  • Coconut and palm oils
  • Lard and shortening

DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT 'EM: TRANS FATS

These fats are so scary that they're being banned in some cities, and food manufacturers and restaurants are working fast to find substitutes. Trans fats are formed when liquid oils are zapped with hydrogen, turning them solid (like stick margarine). Processed foods that contain trans fats have nearly eternal shelf life -- ironically, that's why trans fats were invented: to keep food from going bad. But trans fats turned out to boost bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, gum up arteries, and set off inflammation throughout the body, which can trigger a host of problems, from stroke to diabetes.

BYPASS COMPLETELY:

Though things are changing quickly, be suspicious of any fast or processed food that's not labeled trans-fat-free (packaged-food labels must now list trans fats), including:

  • All deep-fried foods -- chips, French fries, onion rings, donuts, etc.
  • Many fast foods
  • Candy
  • Commercial baked goods -- cookies, pies, cakes, rolls, muffins, etc.

Bottom line: Stay away from trans fats the way you'd avoid highways on the day before Thanksgiving. Clog city.

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