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What are fats?

Fats (or lipids) are an essential source of energy in the diet as they:

  • Help with absorption of  fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K)
  • Form part of cell membranes
  • Provide energy
  • Provide sterol compounds for  hormones
  • Provide the essential fatty acids which our body cannot produce

Fats should be eaten in moderation as too much can lead to weight gain, heart disease and some cancers. The type of fat eaten is also important:

  • Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats - (good) can help reduce cholesterol. They are found in sunflower, olive, canola oils and margarines as well as many nuts, seeds and soy foods. Omega -3 is an important polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna.
  • Saturated and trans fats - ('bad') can raise cholesterol levels and therefore increase your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are present in many foods and are generally found in higher amounts in animal-based products and commercially baked products.

What is saturated fat?

Saturated fats are present in many foods, and are generally found in higher amounts in animal-based products and commercial baked goods. Trans fats can be found in margarine and baked goods such as biscuits and pastries.

Chemically, saturated fats are made of the same types of molecules as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, but they are generally solid at room temperature while other types of fats remain in liquid form.   

It is best to eat fewer foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats, or select lean or low-fat alternatives.  

What are ‘good fats’?

Generally, most registered dietitians and doctors consider polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats ‘good’, while saturated and trans fats are ‘bad’. That’s because saturated and trans fats can increase an individual’s risk for factors that negatively influence heart disease, like blood pressure, cholesterol level, and inflammation.

On the other hand, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are rich in nutrients, which help nourish and fuel cell growth and other healthy processes throughout the body. Some popular examples of these types of ‘good’ fats are:

  •   Corn oil
  •   Sunflower oil
  •   Avocado
  •   Olives
  •   Peanuts and other nuts
  •   Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or tuna
  •   Soymilk
  •   Tofu
  •   Flaxseeds

How many grams of fat should I have per day?

In general, it’s more important to focus on the type of fat you’re ingesting every day, rather than the amount. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have lots of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, which are critical to a healthy body.

In general, we should limit fat to 25-40% of our daily caloric intake. If you’re following a Keto diet or another high-fat low-carb eating plan, that percentage will be quite a bit higher. Regardless of which diet you follow, you should strive to ensure that the majority of the fat you consume comes from healthy sources such as plants or fatty fish.

Related Terms


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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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