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Dietary fats explained

Cholesterol - dietary fats; Hyperlipidemia - dietary fats; CAD - dietary fats; Coronary artery disease - dietary fats; Heart disease - dietary fats; Prevention - dietary fats; Cardiovascular disease - dietary fats; Peripheral artery disease - dietary fats; Stroke - dietary fats; Atherosclerosis - dietary fats

Fats are important part of your diet but some types are healthier than others. Choosing healthy fats from vegetable sources more often than less healthy types from animal products can help lower your risk for heart attack, stroke, and other major health problems.

What are Fats?

Fats are a type of nutrient that you get from your diet. It is essential to eat some fats, though it is also harmful to eat too many.

The fats you eat give your body energy that it needs to work properly. During exercise, your body uses calories from carbohydrates you have eaten. But after 20 minutes, exercise then depends on calories from fat to keep you going.

You also need fat to keep your skin and hair healthy. Fat also helps you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. Fat also fills your fat cells and insulates your body to help keep you warm.

The fats your body gets from your food give your body essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid. They are called "essential" because your body cannot make them itself, or work without them. Your body needs them for brain development, controlling inflammation, and blood clotting.

Fat has 9 calories per gram, more than 2 times the number of calories in carbohydrates and protein, which each have 4 calories per gram.

All fats are made up of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Fats are called saturated or unsaturated depending on how much of each type of fatty acid they contain.

Types of fat

Saturated fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. High LDL cholesterol puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, and other major health problems. You should avoid or limit foods that are high in saturated fats.

  • Keep saturated fats to less than 6% of your total daily calories.
  • Foods with a lot of saturated fats are animal products, such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats.
  • Some vegetable oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil, also contain saturated fats. These fats are solid at room temperature.
  • A diet high in saturated fat increases cholesterol buildup in your arteries (blood vessels). Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that can cause clogged, or blocked, arteries.

Eating unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can help lower your LDL cholesterol. Most vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature have unsaturated fats. There are two kinds of unsaturated fats:

Trans fatty acids are unhealthy fats that form when vegetable oil hardens in a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenated fats, or "trans fats," are often used to keep some foods fresh for a long time.

Trans fats are also used for cooking in some restaurants. They can raise LDL cholesterol levels in your blood. They can also lower your HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

Trans fats are under review for their health effects. Experts are working to limit the amount of trans fats used in packaged foods and restaurants.

You should avoid foods made with hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (such as hard butter and margarine). They contain high levels of trans-fatty acids.

It is important to read nutrition labels on foods. This will help you know what kinds of fats, and how much, your food contains.

Talk with your health care provider about how to cut down on the amount of fat you eat. Your provider can refer you to a dietitian who can help you learn more about foods and help you plan a healthy diet. Make sure you have your cholesterol levels checked according to a schedule your provider gives you.

References

Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Updated December 2015. Accessed August 23, 2018.

Despres J-P, Larose E, Poirier P. Obesity and cardiometabolic disease. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 50.

Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25 Pt B):2960-2984. PMID: 24239922 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24239922.

Heimburger DC. Nutrition's interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 213.

  • Understanding cholesterol results

    Animation

  •  

    Understanding cholesterol results - Animation

    LDL cholesterol has gotten a bad reputation, and for very good reason. Having too much of this fatty substance in your blood can clog up your arteries, preventing blood from getting to your heart and out to where it's needed in your body. Checking your LDL levels can help your doctor spot high cholesterol before it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Let's talk today about LDL tests. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. Lipoprotein is a type of protein that transports cholesterol, as well as fats called triglycerides and lipids, in your blood. When you eat too many fatty, cholesterol-rich foods, LDL cholesterol can start to collect in your artery walls. That's one collection you don't want, because if a chunk of that gunk breaks loose and gets lodged in a blood vessel, you could end up having a heart attack or stroke. To check your LDL cholesterol level, you'll need to have a blood test. Your doctor may tell you not to eat or drink anything for 8 to 12 hours before the test, so you can get an accurate reading. During the test, your doctor will draw blood from one of your veins. The needle might sting a little bit, but the feeling shouldn't last for any more than a few seconds. So, how do you know that you have high LDL cholesterol? Well, your LDL cholesterol level (think L for Lousy) will usually be measured along with your HDL, or good cholesterol (think H for Healthy), as well as your triglycerides and your total cholesterol level. Together, these measurements are called a lipid panel. You want your LDL level to be at least below 130 mg/dl, but ideally less than 100 milligrams per deciliter. If you're at high risk of heart disease, it should be even lower than that - less than 70 milligrams per deciliter. And for folks of average risk of getting heart disease, anything over 160 is considered a high LDL level. If you do have LDL cholesterol, you could be at risk for heart disease. Now, some folks have high cholesterol because they have an inherited condition that causes high cholesterol. If your LDL is low, it may be because you're not eating a well-balanced diet or your intestines aren't absorbing the nutrients from the foods that you eat. Ask your doctor how often you should have your LDL, and total cholesterol levels, checked. Depending upon your heart disease risks, you may need to be tested more often. If your LDL cholesterol is high, ask your doctor about cholesterol-lowering medications, diet, and other ways to bring it back down into a normal range.

  • Food Label Guide for Candy

    Food Label Guide for Candy - illustration

    Saturated fats are found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats. They are also found in some vegetable oils -- coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Eating too much saturated fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. A diet high in saturated fat causes a soft, waxy substance called cholesterol to build up in the arteries. Too much fat also increases the risk of heart disease because of its high calorie content, which increases the chance of becoming obese (another risk factor for heart disease and some types of cancer).

    Food Label Guide for Candy

    illustration

  • Understanding cholesterol results

    Animation

  •  

    Understanding cholesterol results - Animation

    LDL cholesterol has gotten a bad reputation, and for very good reason. Having too much of this fatty substance in your blood can clog up your arteries, preventing blood from getting to your heart and out to where it's needed in your body. Checking your LDL levels can help your doctor spot high cholesterol before it can cause a heart attack or stroke. Let's talk today about LDL tests. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. Lipoprotein is a type of protein that transports cholesterol, as well as fats called triglycerides and lipids, in your blood. When you eat too many fatty, cholesterol-rich foods, LDL cholesterol can start to collect in your artery walls. That's one collection you don't want, because if a chunk of that gunk breaks loose and gets lodged in a blood vessel, you could end up having a heart attack or stroke. To check your LDL cholesterol level, you'll need to have a blood test. Your doctor may tell you not to eat or drink anything for 8 to 12 hours before the test, so you can get an accurate reading. During the test, your doctor will draw blood from one of your veins. The needle might sting a little bit, but the feeling shouldn't last for any more than a few seconds. So, how do you know that you have high LDL cholesterol? Well, your LDL cholesterol level (think L for Lousy) will usually be measured along with your HDL, or good cholesterol (think H for Healthy), as well as your triglycerides and your total cholesterol level. Together, these measurements are called a lipid panel. You want your LDL level to be at least below 130 mg/dl, but ideally less than 100 milligrams per deciliter. If you're at high risk of heart disease, it should be even lower than that - less than 70 milligrams per deciliter. And for folks of average risk of getting heart disease, anything over 160 is considered a high LDL level. If you do have LDL cholesterol, you could be at risk for heart disease. Now, some folks have high cholesterol because they have an inherited condition that causes high cholesterol. If your LDL is low, it may be because you're not eating a well-balanced diet or your intestines aren't absorbing the nutrients from the foods that you eat. Ask your doctor how often you should have your LDL, and total cholesterol levels, checked. Depending upon your heart disease risks, you may need to be tested more often. If your LDL cholesterol is high, ask your doctor about cholesterol-lowering medications, diet, and other ways to bring it back down into a normal range.

  • Food Label Guide for Candy

    Food Label Guide for Candy - illustration

    Saturated fats are found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats. They are also found in some vegetable oils -- coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Eating too much saturated fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. A diet high in saturated fat causes a soft, waxy substance called cholesterol to build up in the arteries. Too much fat also increases the risk of heart disease because of its high calorie content, which increases the chance of becoming obese (another risk factor for heart disease and some types of cancer).

    Food Label Guide for Candy

    illustration

Self Care

 
 

Review Date: 7/12/2018

Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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