Utter the word “fat,” and most people shudder. But, I’m not talking about the kind of fat that deposits under our skin, making us soft and puffy. I’m talking about the kinds of fat that we eat.

Utter the word “fat,” and most people shudder. But, I’m not talking about the kind of fat that deposits under our skin, making us soft and puffy. I’m talking about the kinds of fat that we eat.

Fat, more than any other component of our diet, causes the most confusion. Everyone has an opinion as far as how much to eat, what kinds to eat, which ones are healthy and which ones should be avoided. It seems like every month there is a new “scientific study” touting one kind of fat over another that contradicts the last study. There are many misconceptions and myths about fat in our diet, so I hope to address the most common ones and help you sort out the facts.

1. Eating fat makes us fat. True, dietary fat has more calories per gram (9 calories per gram) than either protein or carbohydrates (4 calories per gram), but it’s the total calories we eat that lead to weight gain. Too often we avoid fat but end up replacing those calories with sugar. When excess sugar is not burned off, it is stored as body fat. Eating fats slows down our digestion and helps us feel full longer, which can actually help with weight loss.

2. Our bodies don’t need fat in our diet. We can’t live without some fat in our diet. Fat gives us energy, helps absorb vitamins, including A, D, E and K , helps make necessary hormones, and is essential for nerve and brain function. A fat-deficient diet can result in stunted growth, reproductive failure, skin lesions, kidney and liver disorders, vision problems, subtle neurological problems, and chronic intestinal disease. In fact, 25 percent to 30 percent of our calories should come from fat.

3. It is best to stick to low-fat or fat-free foods. Not always. Processed foods that are low fat or fat-free have additional ingredients added to make up for the lack of fat. Often, the ingredient is sugar. Fat-free does not mean calorie-free, and many reduced-fat foods have as many or more calories than their traditional alternatives.

4. Any food high in fat is high in cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found only in animal foods. Vegetable oils and nuts do not have cholesterol.

5. Eating fat will raise my cholesterol and increase my risk for heart disease. Eating the wrong foods can definitely raise your cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease. But some fats can actually help you lower your risks and improve your lipid levels. Fats found in fish, nuts, seeds, some vegetable oils and avocados help decrease inflammation and increase good cholesterol levels.

6. All fats are the same. True, all fats have the same 9 calories per gram, but they are not equal when it comes to health benefits. There are several different types of fats; the most talked about are:

Saturated fat: Found in animal products, like meat and dairy, this is the type of fat that can negatively affect cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease. However, there are more than two dozen different kinds of saturated fat and not all of them are harmful. Coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil are saturated fats but appear to be metabolized quickly, help reduce inflammation and do not elevate lipids. Beef and chocolate have a kind of saturated fat that that isn’t harmful to our health.

Polyunsaturated fat: This is the kind of fat found in most vegetable oils, like corn and soybean. These can help improve cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fat: Considered the healthiest kind of fat, you can find this in olive or canola oils, nuts, avocados and olives. Monounsaturated fat can help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Trans fat: Worst of the worst, trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats, increase our risk of heart disease and should be avoided. These are mostly found in processed foods.

Omega 3 fat: Found in fish, flax and chia seeds, omega 3 fatty acids can help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.

7. If you stick to healthy fats, there is no need to limit how much fat you eat. Healthy fat or not, all fat is still a major source of calories. Unless you can afford unlimited calories, it’s best to eat a diet moderate in fat.


Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.