Fats: Know Your Fats


Fat is a nutrient and needed for the normal function of the body. But it also is eaten way too much by way of processed food, super-sized fast food, frozen food, fried food, hot dogs and hamburgers, and all manner of snacks and desserts. Couple this diet with low levels of physical activity and you have a lifestyle tailor-made for the development of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Lifestyle Management Guidelines (2013) urge people to eat a healthy diet and:

  • Decrease saturated fats (Reduce to no more than 5% to 6% of total calories)
  • Decrease trans fats

Learning about these fats will help you reach your goal to decrease heart and blood vessel disease.

Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as meat, milk, cheese, butter and cream, and tropical oils.

They are solid or waxy at room temperature.

The American Heart Association urges a diet thatgets only 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. Most likely this is less than what is currently in your diet. Listed below are some foods that are high in saturated fat.

  • Beef, pork, lamb, veal, and the skin of poultry
  • Hot dogs, bacon and high-fat luncheon meats (such as salami and bologna)
  • High-fat dairy products (such as whole milk, 2% milk, 4% cottage cheese)
  • Butter and lard
  • Sauces and gravies made from animal fat
  • Most fried foods and fast foods
  • Bacon fat
  • Tropical oils - palm, palm kernel, and coconut
  • Desserts and sweets made with lard, butter or tropical oils

To cut the saturated fat in your diet, make the following substitutions:

Instead of ...Choose ...
ButterTrans fat-free tub margarine
Regular cheeseLow-fat or non-fat cheese
Creamer or half and halfNon-fat creamer or non-fat half and half
Whole or 2% milk1% or non-fat (skim) milk
Regular cream cheeseReduced-fat or non-fat cream cheese
Regular ice creamNon-fat or low-fat frozen yogurt or sorbet
2-4% milkfat cottage cheese1% or non-fat cottage cheese
Alfredo, cream saucesMarinara, primavera or light olive-oil based sauces
Regular mayonnaiseLight or non-fat mayonnaise
Prime grades of beefChoice or Select grades of beef
Chicken with skin onChicken without skin
Whole eggEgg whites or egg substitutes

Most foods you choose should contain no more than 2 grams (g) of saturated fat per serving. No more than 5%, 6% or 7% of your daily calorie intake should come from saturated fats. Depending on your calorie level, your daily saturated fat limit will vary.

Daily CaloriesDaily Saturated Fat Limit (g)

Trans fatty acids are formed when a liquid fat is converted to solid fat through a process called hydrogenation. Many manufacturers use hydrogenated fats in their ingredients because it helps increase the shelf-life and helps improve texture and consistency.

There are currently no safe levels of trans fat to consume each day, so try to keep your daily intake as low as possible.

  • Avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils (such as most processed foods including cookies, crackers, fried snacks, baked goods). They will contain some level of trans fat, even if the label states “trans-fat-free.” Since the ingredients listed on a food label are provided in order of weight, foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils at the top of the ingredients list contain more trans fat than those that contain partially hydrogenated oils lower on the list. Therefore, watch your portion size.
  • Avoid using shortening, an example of trans fat in its purest form. Some shortenings now claim to be free of trans fat; however, this may only apply to a food’s serving size (remember it can still have 0.5 gram or less of trans fat per serving.) Unfortunately, the fat now used to substitute the trans fat in shortening is high in saturated fat, so it’s still not a healthy choice.
  • Almost all fast foods and fried foods are currently high in trans fat. Some restaurant chains now use a non-hydrogenated or trans-fat-free oil to fry their foods. But remember that a heart-friendly diet contains very little fried food. Look for foods that are labeled trans-fat-free or those that use liquid vegetable oils instead of hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list.

The list below summarizes ways to cut back your intake of trans fats.

Instead of ...Choose ...
Stick margarineTrans-free tub or liquid margarine*
Fried foodsBaked, grilled or broiled foods
Crackers containing hydrogenated oilsBaked crackers or crackers containing non-hydrogenated (e.g. liquid) oils
Granola bars containing partially hydrogenated oilsGranola bars containing canola oil or non-hydrogenated oils
Chocolate or yogurt-covered pretzelsPlain pretzels
Energy bars dipped in frosting or chocolatePlain, non-coated energy bars
Powdered creamers containing hydrogenated oils or flavored liquid coffee creamersNon-fat half-and-half, skim milk, powdered or liquid creamers containing non-hydrogenated oils.

*For a food to be labeled "trans-fat-free", it must contain no more than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving. Margarine that claims to be trans fat-free should contain water or liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient. These kinds of margarine may still contain some hydrogenated oil, but the amount per serving is negligible. However, portion control is key - once you exceed the serving size, the product is no longer free of trans fat.

Unsaturated fats, when eaten in moderation, are considered the healthiest fats because they improve cholesterol, are associated with lower inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease), and are associated with an overall lower risk of developing heart disease. Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based foods; and are generally liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, solid at refrigeration temperatures. Considered one of the healthiest fat sources in the diet, monounsaturated fats should make up the bulk of your daily fat intake. Monounsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in these foods:

  • Olive oil.
  • Canola (rapeseed) oil.
  • Peanut oils.
  • Most nuts (excluding walnuts), nut oils and nut butter (such as peanut butter).
  • Olives.
  • Avocados.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats are found primarily in:

  • Corn oil.
  • Soybean oil.
  • Safflower oil.
  • Flax oil and flax seeds.
  • Sunflower oil.
  • Walnuts.
  • Fish.

Omega-3 is one type of polyunsaturated fat that has additional protective benefits against cardiovascular disease, including lowering triglycerides, protecting against irregular heartbeats, decreasing the risk of a heart attack and lowering blood pressure.

Good food sources of omega-3 are fish — especially cold-water fish like mackerel, salmon, herring, and sardines. Smaller amounts of this protective fat can also be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds (often sold as salvia), walnuts, soybean and canola oils.

To reap the protective benefits of omega-3 fat, incorporate fish into at least two meals per week and add plant-based sources of omega-3, such as ground flaxseeds and walnuts, into your daily eating plans.

Remember: Although unsaturated fats (mono- and polyunsaturated) are referred to as the “good” fats, you still have to monitor your intake of them. Excessive fat intake of any kind can result in weight gain.

Because cholesterol is made from the liver, it is only found in foods of animal origin (not in plant-based foods). While the focus is not to cut cholesterol in the diet, the Mediterranean diet focuses on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains and that includes fish, nuts and low-fat dairy and limits foods high in saturated fats and animal fat.

Here are a few tips to cut cholesterol in the diet:

  • Limit egg yolks to one per day or less. Consider choosing more egg whites or egg substitutes instead.
  • Remove skin from poultry before eating; trim fat from red meat before eating.
  • Limit red meat and poultry portions to a 3-ounce portion (size of a deck of cards).
  • Choose nonfat or low-fat cheeses. Limit total cheese intake to three meals weekly.
  • Try soy-based cheese alternatives on sandwiches or in casseroles.
  • Choose broth over cream-based soups.
  • Limit high-fat dairy foods such as cream cheese, 4% cottage cheese or whole milk yogurt; choose nonfat or low-fat varieties.

According to the latest national guidelines, your total daily fat intake should range from 26% to 27% percent of your total daily calories and 5% to 6% saturated fat. How much fat you should eat depends upon your individual cardiovascular disease risk and lipid levels. Ask your physician or dietitian for more information.


Nutrition Consultation

  • For more information on preventive cardiology, or to schedule an appointment with a preventive cardiology physician or nutritionist, call the main campus of The Cleveland Clinic at 216.444.9353. Or utilize our remote Nutrition Counseling service.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/19/2019.


  • USDA food pattern (https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/NutrientsInHealthyUS-StyleFoodPattern.pdf) , USDA, 2011, Accessed 2/23/2021.
  • American Heart Association. American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. (http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/The-American-Heart-Associations-Diet-and-Lifestyle-Recommendations_UCM_305855_Article.jsp) Accessed 2/23/2021.
  • 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 (http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/11/11/01.cir.0000437740.48606.d1.full.pdf) , Circulation, November 12, 2013. Accessed 2/23/2021.

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