Dietary Fat and Cholesterol

Key Facts
  • There are several types of fat in the food we eat: unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), saturated, and trans fat.
  • The type of fat that you eat can either increase or decrease both the “good” (HDL) or “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels in your body.
  • There are many health benefits that come from eating foods with fat.
  • About 30% of what you eat each day should come from fat.
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  • Young men's version of this guide

healthy fats

Dietary fat found in food is important for your health and is needed for your body’s normal growth and development. Dietary fat has many different functions in your body, including:

  • Providing long lasting energy
  • Helping you feel full after eating
  • Helping your body make hormones and helping your hormones function properly
  • Forming part of your brain and nervous system
  • Forming cell membranes for every cell in your body
  • Carrying vitamins and other nutrients through your body
  • Helping your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins from food (Vitamins A, D, E, K)
  • Helping to regulate your body temperature and keep you warm

What are the different types of dietary fat?

The four main types of fat found in food are monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans-fat. Most foods have a combination of different fats, but in different amounts.

Monounsaturated fat is a “heart healthy” type of fat. Research shows that monounsaturated fats may help to decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Good Sources of Monounsaturated Fat Include:
Avocados Olive Oil
Almonds Peanut Butter
Canola Oil Peanut Oil
Cashews Sunflower Oil
Nutrition Tip:  Try to increase your intake of monounsaturated fat by including these foods in your meals or snacks. For example, add avocado to a salad at lunch, or spread peanut butter on toast for a filling breakfast.

Polyunsaturated fat is also a “heart healthy” type of fat. There are two essential fatty acids (linolenic and linoleic) that your body uses to make substances that control blood pressure, blood clotting, and your immune system response (aka how your body responds to getting sick or having an infection). Linolenic fatty acids are a special type of fat called Omega-3 fats which are known to have many health benefits for your body and brain.

Good Sources of Polyunsaturated Fat Include:
Canola Oil* Salmon*
Chia Seeds* Sardines*
Corn Oil Sesame Seeds
Cottonseed Oil Soybean Oil
Flaxseeds and Flaxseed Oil* Soybeans
Herring Sunflower Oil
Mackerel* Trout*
Pine Nuts Tuna*
Pumpkin Seeds  Walnuts*
* Indicates a good source of Omega-3 Fats (additional sources include soy-based foods, legumes, and tofu)
Nutrition Tip:  Increase your intake of Omega-3 fats by having one of the starred foods above every day!  You can add chia seeds or walnuts to a morning bowl of oatmeal or make a lentil soup or tuna sandwich for lunch or dinner.


Saturated fat is also sometimes called “animal fat” because many of the richest sources of saturated fat come from foods that originate from animals. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. Although your body needs some saturated fat to stay healthy, overconsumption may increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Sources of Saturated Fat:
Coconut Oil
Ice Cream
Palm or Palm Kernel Oil
Poultry Skin
Red Meat
Whole Milk
Nutrition Tip:Try to decrease your intake of saturated fat by swapping a saturated fat source for an unsaturated fat source.  For example, you can swap butter for olive oil when cooking or use avocado instead of cheese to add creaminess to a sandwich.

Trans fatis formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats. These are sometimes called partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are made artificially by food manufacturers. They were originally thought to be the healthier option to replace saturated fats. However, research shows trans fats both increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Sources of Trans Dietary Fat Include:
Cookies Fried Foods
Crackers Margarine (where the nutrition label does not say 0 grams of trans fat)
Donuts Muffins
Fast Food Shortening
Foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils
Nutrition Tip: Try to stay away from or limit trans fat in your diet, if possible. Look at the nutrition label to see if the product contains trans fat.

How much fat should I eat?

Because there are many health benefits that come from eating fat, there’s no need to follow a low-fat diet. The key is to choose mostly heart healthy types of fat. About 30% of the energy we eat daily should come from fat. The rest of your energy should come from a combination of carbohydrates, including fruits and vegetables, and protein.

What are some alternatives to saturated or trans fats?

Instead of using butter for cooking or spreading, try using olive oil, and choose leaner types of protein such as beans or white-meat chicken. To avoid trans fats, check ingredient lists for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which is often found in products such as fried foods, shelf-stable baked goods, and coffee creamers.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that’s found in animal products and is also made by your liver. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D (which is important for healthy bones), and bile (which helps your body use dietary fat). There are two types of cholesterol: HDL (commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol) and LDL (or “bad” cholesterol).

Dietary cholesterol comes from the foods that you eat. It’s only found in foods that come from animals, such as eggs, meat, fish, dairy products, and butter. It’s also found in foods made with butter, including cake, cookies, and muffins. Food that grows from the ground such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, and grains don’t contain cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol can be affected by the foods you eat and by your genetics (your family’s cholesterol history). Your body naturally makes cholesterol. The amount of cholesterol that is found in the foods you eat is different from the cholesterol level in your blood. Generally, eating large portions of foods high in saturated fat (not foods high in cholesterol) increases the “bad” cholesterol level in your blood. Your medical provider may check your blood cholesterol to see if you’re at risk of getting heart disease or have a family history of high cholesterol. To see a list of foods that can potentially raise your “bad” cholesterol, see the saturated fat table above.  Remember, balance is important.  Having two eggs for breakfast or a slice or two of cheese on your sandwich will not likely have much of an impact on your blood cholesterol level. Eating these foods in balance with other food groups like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, will help regulate your cholesterol.