With nutrition recommendations and new fad diets everywhere you look, it can be hard to know what is the right choice to make when it comes to healthier eating. Headlines are highlighting coconut oil as the new cure-all, encouraging ghee as a butter alternative, and frankly, it’s confusing. 

Choosing the right amount and type of fat is no different. In a world saturated with nutrition advice, here is a breakdown of the type of fats found in food and when to choose them.

Types of Fat

Let’s start with the “good” fat: unsaturated fats

There are monounsaturated fats which help maintain desired cholesterol levels and may improve insulin control. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and canola oil, avocado, most nuts and seeds. There are also polyunsaturated fats; they are essential for key body functions and also can be anti-inflammatory. Not only can they reduce risk of heart disease they may also lower cancer and neurodegenerative disease risk. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fatty fish (like salmon), flaxseed, canola oil, chia and hemp seeds. Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature. These should be your go-to fats.

Saturated fats are next. These fats are typically solid at room temperature and generally come from animal sources. Lard, butter, red meat, and cheese are the most recognizable food sources of saturated fat. A diet high in saturated fat increases bad cholesterol (LDL) and increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Finally, we have trans fats: these are by far the worst. They have no nutritional benefits and wreck the most havoc on your cholesterol levels. They raise bad cholesterol and actually lower good cholesterol. Some foods naturally have trans fats, but not in dangerously high levels. Most trans fats are created during a process called hydrogenation. It is basically when a liquid fat is made solid; think stick margarine. Trans fats are found in many convenience foods like shelf-stable baked goods. These should really be avoided at all cost.

What to Choose

While low fat and fat-free items still line grocery store shelves, extensive nutrition research supports the thought that the type of fat you have is more important to your health then the amount. 

When fat is taken out of food items it is typically replaced with simple carbohydrates and sugar, which certainly does not promote weight loss or better overall health. Rather than buying fat-free items look for items with wholesome ingredients. For example, a salad dressing where the first ingredient is olive or canola oil, instead of sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

Limit the amount of cooking you do with saturated fats. If you have to fry food, fry it in a vegetable-based oil instead of butter or lard. You can even thicken traditional soups and sauces with a combination for canola oil and flour instead of a butter based roux. Use a small amount of butter to finish a dish rather than mixing it in. There are also some great canola oil combination items that give you the rich taste of butter with less saturated fat: 

  • Land O Lakes makes a Butter Spread with Canola Oil. 1 TBSP has 4g of saturated fat as compared to full butter that has 7g of saturated fat per TBSP (that is more than 40% less saturated fat)
  • Hellman’s Canola Oil Mayonnaise is saturated fat-free while the traditional mayonnaise as 1.5g per TBSP. 

So while butter is not “back” there are some really great alternatives out there.

Finally, let’s talk about coconut oil. 

Manufacturers claim it can cure everything from dry skin to heart disease. The fact is that 80-90% of coconut oil is saturated, remember that is a bad fat, despite the fact that it is a plant. While there are saturated fats called MCTs which are absorbed more slowly by the body and can be seen as less bad coconut oil does have any; leaving it very little redeemable health benefits. Just like other saturated fats coconut oil can have a place in your pantry, just use it sparingly. Try replacing it with avocado oil for a more exotic option.

If you are looking to improve the quality of your diet don’t automatically reduce the amount of fat. Choose healthier unsaturated fats; they help you feel full and have many health benefits.