The skinny on fats: good fats vs bad fats

We all need some fat in our diet and strict avoidance of fats is an unhealthy approach.  Fats have a number of important roles in our bodies including making use of fat-soluble vitamins, providing building blocks for cell membranes, maintaining healthy skin, insulating body organs and providing an energy reserve.  In fact, the official recommendation from Dieticians of Canada is that adults get one-third to one-fifth (20-35%) of all calories from fats.  Children need even more fat as they transition out of a high fat diet during infancy; children aged 1-3 years should get 30-40% of calories from fat and those aged 4-18 years should aim for 25-35% of energy from fat.

The key is getting enough ‘good’ fats and avoiding the ‘bad’ fats.  But which fats are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad?’  And where do saturated fats fall?


Good Fats

I like to choose healthy fats that I can indulge in guilt-free so I’m sharing four of my favorite foods rich in ‘good’ fats.


  • Rich and creamy, avocados are packed full of fat, with a whopping 85% of calories coming from fat.  But don’t worry, they are made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
  • Avocados are also a great source of antioxidants which work together with the fats in the avocado.  If you add an avocado to a salad or salsa, its healthy fats help you get more nutritional benefits from your food by increasing the absorption of fat-soluble antioxidants.

Olive oil

  • Olive oil is a key component of the traditional Mediterranean diet and it has been in part attributed to the many health benefits associated with this diet, such as a lower incidence of heart disease and a longer life expectancy.
  • It has a similar fatty acid composition to avocado, containing a high level of monosaturated fats.
  • Olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, contains nutrients called polyphenols which have many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory effects.


  • Salmon is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, specifically the long-chain omega-3’s EPA and DHA, which most people don’t get enough of in their diet.  These omega-3 fatty acids have a wide-range of benefits, including heart health for adults as well as brain and eye development for infants.
  • In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, salmon provides an excellent source of many other nutrients including vitamin B12, vitamin D and selenium.


  • Nuts are nutrient-rich choice, filled with protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
  • While nuts do contain a high level of fat, it’s made up mostly of unsaturated fats including omega-3 fats in walnuts.  Eating nuts regularly reduces “bad” cholesterol and improves triglyceride levels, particularly in people who have high levels to begin with.

Bad Fats

Saturated fats have come under fire from health organizations and the optimal amount / ratio of saturated fats iis a topic of scientific debate.  Research studies indicate that we tend to consume too few omega-3 fatty acids, so replacing some saturated fats with omega-3 fatty acids has beneficial effects.  Just cutting down on saturated fats indiscriminately is probably not the solution, as replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates, raises triglycerides and has negative effects on cardiovascular health.  It’s also important to choose natural sources of fat, as processed meats have harmful additives like salt and nitrates.  Research findings suggest that it may not be the saturated fat itself, but the added preservatives in processed red meat that increase risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes.   I think that the important thing is to choose fats from natural sources and avoid those that have been processed and have added chemicals.

I believe that the only fats that are truly ‘bad’ in themselves are those that are man-made.  I’m talking about trans fats, specifically those that are industrially produced (natural trans fats are found in dairy products and ruminant meats, but these have been linked to health benefits).  Industrially produced trans fats are formed when liquid vegetable oil is converted into a solid form through partial hydrogenation.  The result is that the product has a longer shelf life, a desirable quality for food manufacturers.  Trans fats hide in many processed foods including hard margarine, baked goods, deep fried foods, chips, crackers and microwave popcorn.  Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a cost, as trans fats have been associated with many harmful health effects.

Harmful Effects of Trans Fats:

  • Increase the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol and decrease the amount of ‘good’ cholesterol and are associated with higher risk of heart disease.
  • Increase inflammation in the body
  • Have been found to interfere with the metabolism of essential fatty acids
  • Some evidence suggests that trans fats increase insulin resistance, especially among those with high risk (ie. overweight and type 2 diabetics)
  • High intakes of trans fats have been associated with weight gain

You can read more about Trans Fats here.

Take Home Message

Consume a variety of fats from natural sources to get enough of the ‘good’ fats and beware of toxic trans fats.


Photo: Tanya Goehring | Post Photography

Styling: Natalie Bjordal