Find out about the different fats in food and which ones you should avoid.

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About fats

Fat is an important nutrient for your body. It:

  • gives you energy
  • helps your body grow and develop
  • helps your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K

Fats in food

Fat is found in foods such as:

  • nuts and seeds
  • beef, deli and processed meats, lamb and pork
  • fish, such as herring, salmon, sardines and trout
  • poultry, with most of the fat found in the skin and dark meat

It's also found in:

  • butter
  • animal fat, such as lard, suet and tallow
  • foods made from oil, such as margarine, mayonnaise and salad dressing
  • vegetable oils, such as canola, flax, olive, peanut, safflower and sunflower
  • higher fat dairy products, such as cheese, cream, ice cream and sour cream

Many prepared foods contain fat, including:

  • fast foods
  • French fries
  • potato chips
  • baked goods
  • frozen mixed dishes

The 3 main kinds of fat are:

  1. trans
  2. saturated
  3. unsaturated

Blood cholesterol

Both good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL) are found in your blood.

High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup. Plaque clogs blood vessels, reducing oxygen and blood flow. LDL cholesterol is linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver for disposal. High levels of HDL are linked to a lower risk of heart disease.

It's healthier to have higher levels of HDL and lower levels of LDL.

Trans and saturated fats

Trans and saturated fats are not good for your health. They can increase your risk of heart disease because of how they affect your cholesterol levels. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Canada.

Both trans and saturated fats will raise your level of LDL cholesterol.

Trans fats will also lower your level of HDL cholesterol.

Trans fats

Trans fats can be found naturally in some animal-based foods or can be industrially produced.

Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in foods such as:

  • beef
  • lamb
  • dairy products

Industrially produced trans fats are formed during food processing. Some liquid vegetable oils, such as canola and soybean oil, contain small amounts of trans fats. These are formed during manufacturing.

However, the main source of industrially produced trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are used by food manufacturers to improve the shelf life and texture of food. Some foods that may contain partially hydrogenated oils include:

  • hard margarines
  • vegetable shortenings
  • commercially baked goods like cookies

Manufacturers have made significant progress in reducing the trans fat content in many of these products. However, some products still contain high levels of trans fats. Check the nutrition facts table on the label to make sure the product has little or no trans fat.

Trans fat intake in Canada

In the 1990s, Canadians had one of the highest trans fat intakes in the world. Since the early 2000s, we've reduced the trans fat intakes of Canadians through various approaches, including:

  • requiring trans fat labelling on packaged food
  • setting voluntary targets for trans fat maximum limits in processed foods
  • setting up a 2-year program to measure the food industry's progress to meet the voluntary targets, including:
    • active monitoring
    • open reporting

These approaches have been successful in reducing trans fat levels in the Canadian food supply. However, some foods still have high levels of partially hydrogenated oils. This can be a health concern for Canadians who regularly eat these foods.

Saturated fats

Saturated fat is usually solid at room temperature. It's found in foods such as:

  • dairy products, including butter, cheese and whole milk
  • animal foods, including beef, chicken, lamb, pork and veal

It's also found in:

  • palm oil
  • coconut oil
  • lard and shortening

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are good for your health. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats helps to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide recommends 30 mL to 45 mL (2 tbsp to 3 tbsp) of unsaturated fats a day.

There are 2 types of unsaturated fats:

  1. polyunsaturated
  2. monounsaturated

Polyunsaturated fats are found in:

  • nuts and seeds
  • fatty fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon and trout
  • vegetable oils, such as canola, corn, flaxseed, soybean and sunflower

Monounsaturated fats are found in:

  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds
  • vegetable oil, including:
    • olive
    • canola
    • peanut
    • sesame
    • safflower
    • sunflower

Buying and preparing foods with unsaturated fats

While you need some fat for a healthy diet, you should limit your intake of trans and saturated fats.

Buying food

When you're at the grocery store, follow the suggestions in Canada's food guide. Choose:

  • leaner meats
  • lower fat dairy products
  • foods that contain little or no trans or saturated fat
  • meat alternatives, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu

When you're buying packaged foods, compare products by using the nutrition facts table on the label. The table shows the percent daily value, the type and amount of fat.

You can calculate the percent daily value for fats by referring to the daily values chart. When looking at the nutrition facts table, you will notice:

  • an overall fat category
  • saturated and trans fats are listed together

Food manufacturers do not have to list monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the table. To find out the amount of unsaturated fat, subtract the sum of saturated and trans fats from the total fat.

Preparing food

Canada's food guide recommends 30 mL to 45 mL (2 tbsp to 3 tbsp) of unsaturated fat. This includes:

  • margarine
  • mayonnaise
  • salad dressing
  • oil used for cooking

In a day, 30 mL of unsaturated fat would look like this:

  • 15 mL (1 tbsp) of dressing on your salad
  • 5 mL (1 tsp) of soft margarine on your toast or bread
  • 5 mL (1 tsp) of canola or olive oil used to cook your stir-fry
  • 5 mL (1 tsp) of canola oil in your frying pan to make scrambled eggs

You should also:

  • fry food less often
  • use cooking oils that have a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats

Do not use the same oil for frying more than 2 or 3 times.

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