A Healthy Guide to Fat in Your Diet: The Good, Bad & the Ugly

Updated on February 2, 2019
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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

I will never use a substitute for butter. Margarine is one molecule away from eating plastic. If I’m going to eat that type of food, it’s going to be the real deal.

— Paula Deen

Is Fat a Four-Letter Word?

For several decades “fat” has been vilified—an evil word in the American diet. Nutritionists and doctors preached that a low-fat diet is a key to losing weight. We were told that to manage our cholesterol levels, we needed to eliminate fat from our diets.

But further research has found that unlike Gertrude Stein’s rose, not all fats are the same.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

More important than the amount of fat is the type. Bad fats raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of weight gain, clogged arteries, and diabetes. On the other hand, good fats protect your heart and support overall health. In fact, fats such as omega-3s are essential to your physical and emotional well being—they help you fight fatigue, elevate your mood, and even control your weight. The key to a healthy diet isn’t to cut out the fat, it’s to replace bad fats with the good ones.

So, first let’s look at the four major groups of fats.

The Good

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats: Oils that contain unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Olive oil is a good example of this. What is the difference between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated? A chemist would tell you that the difference between these two fats lies in their structures.

Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond in their structures. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds in their structure.

What does this mean? Well, simply put there are two methods of extracting oil. First is what we call the cold-press method—the monounsaturated oils. ‘Mono’ oils such as:

  • extra virgin olive oil,
  • peanut oil, and
  • sesame oil.

These oils are made without the use of chemicals. Squeeze, press, extract. Done.

A Word About Olive Oil

Olive oil—the fair-haired child of heart healthy fats and the workhorse of the healthy kitchen. It raises HDL (good) cholesterol and lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. But olive oil is also calorie-dense. That means that it needs to be used sparingly.

Olive oil is amazingly complex. While other oils can be bland or non-descript, olive oil imparts a rich green, fruity flavor. Where you might normally add a pat of butter, why not try a drizzle of good-quality olive oil? You might just be surprised at the result—and your heart will thank you.

But science and innovation have helped us to discover a second set of healthy oils—the polyunsaturated oils.

These oils are manufactured by using heat and solvents to extract the oil from the seed or food product. Examples are

  • walnuts,
  • sunflower,
  • sesame,
  • soybean,
  • sunflower,
  • corn,
  • canola, cottonseed, and
  • safflower oils.


Within the group of polyunsaturated oils is subgroup called omega-3 fatty acids. These are heart-healthy and are definitely beneficial (good stuff). Omega-3 has been found to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and to lower blood pressure levels. The USDA encourages an average of 250mg of omega-3s per day. The best source of omega-3’s is fatty fish, such as:

  • Salmon

  • Tuna

  • Trout

  • Mackerel

  • Sardines

  • Herring

The Bad

The Bad

Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods—those made from animal products. A diet heavy in saturated fats will raise your total cholesterol level. And (more bad news), foods high in saturated fats and also typically high in calories.

Examples are:

  • fatty beef,
  • lamb,
  • pork (which of course includes bacon),
  • poultry with skin,
  • beef fat (tallow),
  • lard and cream,
  • butter,
  • cheese and
  • other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk.

In addition, many baked goods and fried foods can contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats.

The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. That means, for example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day. One tablespoon of animal fat (bacon grease, duck fat, lard) is 116 calories and 13 grams of fat.

The chart below provides information on the fat grams in a 3-ounce serving of meat (which is what we should limit ourselves to). Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards!

Bacon Mania

If you grew up 50 (or more) years ago, bacon was probably a part of your daily diet—most of us began our day with a "nutritious" breakfast of bacon and eggs. (And if you are as old as or older than me, your mom might have saved the bacon fat for cooking).

Times changed—bacon became the fat and ugly kid that no one wanted to associate with. And now, the trend has come back full-circle. Bacon appears in everything—it flavors our vodka, appears in lip balm, is coated in chocolate, and is even candied to adorn cupcakes.

Before we leave this section, let me say a few words about butter.

The truth is that butter is a saturated fat. Rich, flavorful, creamy, and luxurious.

Is it a perfect fat? No, certainly not. But, like anything, if used in moderation, it can elevate the aroma, taste, and mouth-feel of a mediocre meal to something amazing. The staff of Cooking Light magazine has not totally shunned the use of butter in their recipes. In fact, they embrace the use of butter as a reward, used as a small element to enhance a food and make it outstanding and (within bounds) still healthy.

How to Use Butter in a Healthy Way

  • Don't fry with it. It has a low smoke point (that means that it burns easily).
  • Save your butter to finish a pan sauce. An example is given below in this recipe from Cooking Light Magazine:

Pan-Seared Chicken Breast with Butter-Rich Pan Sauce


  • 4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon grated onion
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 3/4 cup unsalted chicken stock (such as Swanson)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


  1. Let chicken stand at room temperature for 20 minutes. Sprinkle chicken with 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat a large stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil; swirl to coat. Add chicken to pan, rounded side down; cook 5 minutes. Turn chicken over; reduce heat to medium, and cook 5 minutes or until done. Remove chicken from pan; let stand 5 minutes. Add remaining 1 teaspoon oil, onion, and garlic to pan; sauté 1 minute.
  2. Add flour; sauté 30 seconds. Add wine to pan; cook 30 seconds or until liquid almost evaporates, stirring constantly. Stir in stock; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 3 minutes or until reduced to 1/2 cup, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat; stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt, butter, and sugar. Sprinkle with parsley.

The Ugly

Trans fats are a man-made substance—an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature. The benefit is that these oils spoil at a much slower rate—slower spoilage means a longer shelf-life for goods made with trans fats. And trans fats used for deep frying don’t have to be changed as often. You are probably wondering why this is a bad thing?

Trans fats are considered by nutritionists to be the worst of all fats—the Frankenstein of dietary substances. Trans fats (also called trans-fatty acids or partially hydrogenated oil) are truly a cholesterol double-whammy. They raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower the good (HDL) cholesterol.

Now That You Have All of This Information...

…how do you apply it to your every-day diet?

  • Eliminate trans fats from the foods you purchase. Look for phrases such as “partially hydrogenated oil,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable (or soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, or palm) oil,” “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “shortening” on food labels.
  • Find ways to introduce more of the “good” fats to your diet. Use olive oil instead of butter when preparing mashed potatoes. A drizzle of sesame oil tastes wonderful on a green salad or in Asian stir fry. Avocado has a mild taste and creamy feel. Use mashed avocado in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches.
  • Fish such as salmon, trout, and mackerel are rich in omega-3. Include them in your weekly menu plan at least once each week.
  • Many families have adopted “Meatless Monday” as a way of saving money and improving their nutritional health. A four-egg omelet is not a healthy meat-free alternative, but one beautifully poached egg atop pasta, a rice bowl, or a fluffy baked potato will give you a hearty satisfying meal that is economical, lower in fat, and protein dense.
  • Replace the fat-laden croutons on your salad with walnuts.
  • Ground turkey with a ratio of 93/7 (lean to fat) is a much healthier choice than ground beef and can be used interchangeably in any recipe. Just be sure to thoroughly cook your turkey (this is not the place for a medium-rare burger).
  • Change your method of cooking—broil, bake, or steam in lieu of frying.
  • Remove the skin from chicken and turkey.
  • Americans tend to eat much more protein than necessary. When filling your plate, mentally divide it into four equal quadrants. One-fourth should contain your serving of protein; one fourth should contain a starch (potato, rice, pasta, or grain). The remaining one-half of your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits.

The Real Skinny on the Fats You Use

Sunflower Seed

In an effort to reduce fat in your diet, which of these types of recipes would you like to see in future Carb Diva hubs?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Linda Lum


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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish - It sounds like you're on the right track. Keep up the good work!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      I gave up beef "cold turkey" in the mid-1990s and don't drink much milk either. I have been cutting back drastically on pork. I'm all with Paula Dean on the butter v. margarine thing. My dad is a food scientist and warned me long ago to stay away from fake foods.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      So true. Give us the simple life back!!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Lawrence - I think that years ago when we make our own foods and didn't rely on packaged goods from the store, our dietary lives were much less complex. Now there are so many additives and one almost has to be a scientist to figure it out.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      Fascinating! A few months ago my wife and daughter were put on 'gluten and sugar free' diets by the Doctor and I was really surprised at what was and wasn't in the diet!

      In came Butter and Cheese as they are made with the curds from milk and have the lactose (a bad sugar) extracted but out went Margarine as that has Canola oil in it that is high in the bad kind of sugars!

      We used to get the 'buttery taste' margarines and I would spread it on pretty thick but now using the butter I only need a 'smidgeon' and the difference is amazing.

      Great information


    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Bravewarrior - Oh what a delight to see a comment from you! Bravo on your diet/cooking changes. Yes, applesauce is a wonderful sub for fat in baking. I know that, and follow that guideline, but wasn't sure how to fit it into this particular hub. (Hmmm, I'll need to give that some thought).

      As for further hubs, yes I will certainly work on "tofu" and "meatless Monday". Stay tuned.

      The cookbook might need to take a bit of a backseat (or back burner) for the time being. But it is certainly on my bucket list. Thank you for your comments and support.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 years ago from Central Florida

      Diva, I've changed the way I cook over the years. I used to keep a container of bacon grease in my fridge. I always added a tablespoon to my black-eyed peas. Then I quit doing that. I put ham hocks in them anyway, so why double up?

      I also don't fry as much as I used to (and will never again buy Crisco!). I can't remember the last time I fried chicken (which was my man-snatching dish as a young adult). I do, however, still enjoy a fried pork chop from time to time. And can't have catfish unless it's fried. So, now I use grape seed oil when frying anything. (I wrote a hub about oils. You might find it gives much the same advice you give here.)

      The only oils I use for cooking are grape seed oil, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil (first cold-pressed) - and all organic.

      I love the idea of adding walnuts to a salad in place of croutons. Gotta have that crunch, right?

      Another tip: when baking, substitute applesauce for oil in cookie and cake recipes. Oil is basically a binder; applesauce does the same thing without compromising texture or flavor. If a recipe calls for 1/2 cup oil, use 1/2 cup (unsweetened, organic) applesauce instead.

      Great hub, Diva. I'd love to see some tofu and meatless Monday recipes (I used to be a vegetarian a while back). The only thing is, with regard to tofu, soy is one of the top four GMO products grown in the U.S. now, so only buy it (and anything soy) if it's certified organic.

      How's that cookbook coming? :-)

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Rachel - I do the same in my kitchen--NEVER deep fry anything or use butter to sauté. But it is easy to add a bit too much to the skillet once in a while. Researching this topic really taught me a great deal. Thanks for your kind comments.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      4 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      I only use extra virgin olive oil and canola oil. But, you are right, one has a tendency to forget the calories in these oils just because we know they are good for us. Thanks for all the great information.

      Blessings to you.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric - I won't pretend that I always follow these guidelines, but it's all good information to keep in mind as we load our grocery carts and our plates.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Oh Bill, I didn't mean to imply that you can never indulge in bacon--everything in moderation. I'll bet you are doing fine. Thanks and have a good rest of the week.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You had me in your corner right up until the bacon bashing. LOL Seriously, I know it, but oh my goodness, I love bacon! Well, the good news is we hardly ever eat it...and we are pretty good about fats....so we are doing better than we once did, which is a good thing, right?

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thanks I needed that. And excellent article. I always need reminders on eating healthy -- not perfect yet but getting better all the time.


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