How to Make the Switch from Bad Fats to Heart-Healthy Fats

5 min read

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Fat used to get a bad rap, but these days, it’s fairly common knowledge that not all fat is bad. We know that our bodies require good fats in order to function properly and stay healthy. Bad fats lead to clogged arteries, heart disease, and obesity. Good fats protect our organs, keep our brain and heart healthy, fight fatigue, and help our bodies to absorb vitamins.

Even when we’re dieting, we typically don’t want to remove fats from our diet altogether. Instead, we want to replace the bad with the good, wherever we can. So, which types of foods have these good fats vs. bad fats? Let’s take a look at each and then we’ll list some easy ways to make the swap.

Bad fats (avoid)

If you could only remember one type of fat to avoid, make it trans fat. It is bad. It used to be everywhere, but it’s thankfully been banned in several countries, including the US. That said, this stuff has a loooong shelf life, so you’ll want to check your cabinets to make sure you don’t have any in there.

Trans fat is a byproduct of hydrogenation, which is a process that transforms oils into solid fats in order to prevent them from going rancid, thereby giving them this longer and more stable shelf life. Trans fats were easy to recognize as margarine and vegetable shortening, but they were also a key ingredient in most packaged goods and fast foods.

Sometimes you’d see it clearly listed on the ingredients label as ‘trans fat’, while other times you’d see it as ‘partially hydrogenated oil’. Either way, avoid.

Not great fats (limit intake)

Saturated fats were on the most hated list until trans fats took center stage. And while they’re not considered as evil a villain as they used to be, saturated fats are still not your buddy. Like trans fats, saturated fats can raise levels of bad LDL cholesterol and significantly increase the risk of heart disease.

You’ll find saturated fats in meat and dairy products, poultry skins, and tropical plant-based oils such as coconut* and palm oil**.

* There is ongoing debate around whether the saturated fat of coconut oil is good or bad. I don’t go into the debate here. Personally, I use coconut oil often.

** I avoid palm oil for ethical reasons (rainforest decimation and the brutal killing of orangutans) unless it is certified humane or can otherwise show it has been responsibly harvested.

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Good fats (eat more!)

Unsaturated (good) fats help to fight inflammation in our bodies. They also help to lower levels of bad cholesterol, while increasing levels of good cholesterol, which helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Good fats can be bucketed into two main categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.

Good sources of monounsaturated fats include avocados, nuts, and unrefined oils such as olive, sesame, avocado, sunflower, and high oleic safflower oils. In addition to getting these fats from foods, our bodies can also manufacture monounsaturated fats from the saturated fats that we eat.

Polyunsaturated fats are needed to build cell membranes, clot our blood, move muscles, and reduce inflammation. Our bodies cannot synthesize polyunsaturated fats, so we need to actively include them in our diet.

Polyunsaturated fats

The two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Most of us get enough omega-6 without thinking too much about it, because it’s found in foods we eat regularly. Good sources of omega- 6s include nuts, seeds, olives, whole grains, leafy vegetables, and unrefined vegetable oils such as hemp, safflower, sesame, and sunflower oils.

By contrast, getting enough omega-3 may require some planning, unless you regularly eat fish – specifically fatty fish such as anchovies, sardines, salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, and halibut, as well as mussels and oysters.

The bad news is that wild caught fish (particularly larger species) are often contaminated to varying degrees with environmental toxins, including mercury. And unfortunately, industrially farmed fish are not always safer. This is because farmed fish are often contaminated with growth hormones and antibiotics, as well as disease from living in extremely tight quarters that limit their natural movement and promote illness.

Good sources of vegetarian omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts and walnut oil, ground flaxseeds* and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, safflower oil, avocado oil, (organic, non- GMO) edamame, and algae (usually as a supplement).

Omega-3 is also found in smaller amounts in beans, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables.

Flaxseed oil

Aim to consume one teaspoon of (unheated) flaxseed oil or one tablespoon of (unheated) ground flaxseed each day. Flaxseeds have a nice nutty flavor and can be added to salads, smoothies, breakfast cereals, or drizzled over whole grains. Flaxseeds need to be ground in order for your body to absorb all their nutrients. Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil should be kept cool in the fridge or freezer to prevent damage from heat and oxygen.

How to replace bad fats with good fats



Margarine and vegetable shortening

Olive oil is a great margarine replacement for sandwiches and other savory foods. High oleic safflower and sunflower oil are a healthy replacement for margarine for baked goods.

Applesauce, pureed prunes, or mashed banana can take the place of shortening since they will make the baked goods light and flaky. (Just be sure to reduce the amount of sweetener in the recipe, when using fruit to replace shortening.)

Fried foods, from a fast food chain or packaged from the store, including fried chicken (both parts and nuggets), fried fish, french fries, onion rings, hash browns, and hush puppies

Make these foods yourself and, instead of frying them, try baking or lightly sautéing in unrefined olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, or virgin coconut oil.

Most packaged & commercially prepared dough-foods including breads, cookies, cakes, pastries, donuts, and muffins

Healthier options are typically baked with unrefined virgin coconut oil, high oleic safflower oil, or sunflower oil.

Most packaged snack foods such as chips, crackers, packaged and microwave popcorn

Healthier packaged options are typically baked with unrefined virgin coconut oil, high oleic safflower oil, or sunflower oil. You can also make them yourself.

Other foods that list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the label

Any of the oils listed above.




Red meat and poultry with skin

Plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. High-fiber carbohydrates such as whole grains… not refined grains.

Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream

Milk and butters made from nuts and seeds. Common examples of non-dairy milks and butters found in healthier food stores (or easily made at home) include those made from almond, cashew, walnut, and pumpkin seeds.

Palm oil

Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil and unrefined vegetable and seed oils (e.g., avocado, olive, flax seed, walnut, sunflower, and safflower oils).


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