Good fats, bad fats, trans fats, fat-free--navigating the world of fats can be confusing and overwhelming. But it's important to have a little knowledge about the fats in your food so you can make healthy choices. Here's a primer on fats that can help you make better-informed choices the next time you're buying food at the supermarket or deciding what to make for dinner.

The bad fats

Trans fats, which appear on nutrition labels as "partially hydrogenated oils" or "vegetable shortening," not only raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, they lower HDL (good) cholesterol as well. Because of this, they increase your risk for heart disease and strokes. Trans fats are also associated with an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes.

Trans fats are used to create a desirable "mouth feel" in products, as well as prolong shelf life of packaged foods. They're also often used for deep frying in restaurants. In order to avoid trans fats, read package labels carefully and either avoid fried foods at restaurants or make sure they are not using trans fats to fry your food.

Three prime suspects when it comes to trans fats:

1. Spreads: Margarine and other non-butter spreads and shortening--stick margarine has 2.8 grams of trans fat per tablespoon. Try soft-tub margarine instead of stick. Check the label and choose one with zero trans fat and no more than 2 grams of saturated fats per teaspoon.

2. Instant soups in a cup and ramen noodles: These convenience foods usually have high levels of trans fats (and sodium, too). If you're too busy to make a batch of soup or noodles, try reduced-fat canned soups.

3. Packaged foods: Cake and other quick mixes generally have several grams of trans fat per serving. Baking from scratch adds a few extra steps but reduces trans fats in your diet, and saves money, too.

Saturated fats, such as butter, cheese, and the fats found in beef and pork can also increase the risk of heart disease. These are best eaten in moderation and as "supporting actors" in your meals (for example, dinner can include large servings of broccoli and brown rice and a smaller portion of meat).

Three places saturated fats are lurking:

1. Ice cream: Most ice cream is made with heavy cream that's loaded with saturated fat. In fact, some brands have more than 10 grams of saturated fat per half cup. Instead, try frozen yogurt or sorbet.

2. Bacon and salami: Sure, you know these meat products have fat--you can see it! But did you know that 3 ounces of pan-fried bacon contains 4 grams of saturated fat, and that 3 ounces of salami has 10 grams? Instead, look into meatless sausage and turkey slices for breakfast and lunch.

3. Coconut: It's not a fruit, it's a seed, and dried, unsweetened coconut contains 57 grams of saturated fat per 100 gram serving. If you're baking, try reducing the amount and replacing it with dried fruits or nuts.

The good fats

There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated (found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts and seeds) and polyunsaturated (safflower oil, corn oil, nuts, and seeds). Both can lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, thus supporting heart health and lowering the risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that have a myriad of health benefits: They reduce inflammation throughout the body, lower blood pressure and improve immune function. They are found in walnuts, flax seeds and fatty cold-water fish such as salmon.

The bottom line

It is best not to attempt to avoid fats completely or to attempt to eat a very low-fat diet. Kelly Laschkwitsch, a registered dietitian at Good Samaritan Weight Management Institute in Portland, Ore., recommends reading labels and honing in on the percentage daily value (% DV) portion of the label. If the % DV is more than 20 percent, you should probably only eat it in moderation. If the % DV is 5 percent or lower, that product would be a good choice to include regularly in your diet. She also reminds her patients that the amount of unsaturated fats in their diet should far exceed the amounts of trans-fats and saturated fats.

So, next time you venture into your grocery store, spend a more time in the produce section. When you move into the inner aisles, remember your good fats, your bad fats, and your percentage of daily values and you should be able to choose your foods wisely.


Lisa Weiner

Portland-based freelance writer Lisa Weiner is a nurse practitioner and proud mother. She has a passion for demystifying the world of health for her patients and readers. Her work has appeared in Clinician Reviews, the Jewish Review, Northwest Palate and the Oregonian.