Questions & Answers About Fats in Our Diet

(FN1685, Revised January 2024)

Through the years, certain foods fall in and out of public awareness and favor. This certainly has been true of fats, such as those found in margarine and butter. For example, for a time, margarine was recommended instead of butter for health reasons; more recently, margarine has gotten bad press because it contains trans fat.

Lead Author
Lead Author:
Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., Food and Nutrition Specialist
Other Authors

Tanya Lillehoff, Program Assistant (former)

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The sometimes-conflicting messages in the media can create confusion, so this publication discusses the different types of fat and current research-based recommendations for health. It also answers common questions about dietary fats. 

Q: What are the current recommendations related to fats in the diet?

Choosing liquid vegetable oils instead of solid fats is a great way to be kind to your body. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that we:

  • Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Consume 5% of calories from nutrient-dense food such as lean meat, poultry, eggs, etc.
  • Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils. Saturated fat is found in high-fat meat, full-fat dairy products, butter, coconut oil and palm oil.

Q: What is trans fat?

Trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid at room temperature. Therefore, they are dubbed “partially hydrogenated oils.” Food manufacturers use trans fats because they are inexpensive to produce and lengthen shelf life. Partially hydrogenated oils are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Q: Why should I be concerned about my trans fat intake?

Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels, which in turn increases how much cholesterol builds up on the walls of your body’s arteries. Increased cholesterol buildup, or plaque, increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Q: Why is “good cholesterol” (HDL) good and “bad cholesterol” (LDL) bad?

Cholesterol has an overall bad reputation, but some cholesterol in the body is necessary to sustain life. To travel through the bloodstream, cholesterol must be transported by the carrier molecules LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and each has a different function. HDL scavenges and removes cholesterol from arteries. It acts as a maintenance crew for the inner walls of blood vessels to keep plaque from building up. This is why HDL is considered good for health.

LDL, on the other hand, is a bit of a litterbug. LDL deposits cholesterol and collects in the walls of blood vessels, causing plaque to form. Higher LDL levels put you at greater risk for a heart attack from a sudden blood clot in an artery narrowed by atherosclerosis.

Q: Is canola oil or coconut oil better?

If you were told coconut oil is considered better for you or will help you lose weight, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that coconut oil does not improve cardiovascular health due to the high amount of saturated fat. It is found to increase LDL levels and has not been shown to support weight loss. Coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon versus canola oil with 1 gram saturated fat. Canola oil is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which helps raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Keep in mind, though, that any type of fat is a concentrated source of calories.

Q: How do I increase good fat in my diet?

Replace solid fats in your diet with liquid vegetable oil, which is a source of the more healthful fats. Fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and trout contain omega-3 fatty acids, which lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. Plant sources of fat include avocados, nuts, seeds and olives.

Q: How can I modify my favorite recipes to reduce trans and saturated fat?

When the recipe calls for:Substitute this:
Margarine or ButterCanola or Olive Oil
1 teaspoon3/4 tsp. + 1/4 teaspoon water*
1 tablespoon2-1/4 teaspoon + 3/4 teaspoon water*
1 cup3/4 cup + 1/4 teaspoon water*
*butter contains water
ShorteningCanola or Olive Oil
1 teaspoon1 teaspoon

Q: What information is on the latest Nutrition Facts label?

Added sugars, vitamin D and potassium are the latest additions to the Nutrition Facts label.

Nutrition Facts Label

For more information, visit these websites:

NDSU Extension www.ag.ndsu.edu/food

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov 

American Heart Association www.heart.org