Some people believe that the less fat you eat, the better. You, too, may think that all fat is bad. The truth is, certain types of fat can actually help your heart, so you don't need to avoid fat altogether. Instead, watch how much and what type you eat.

For a heart-healthy diet, the USDA recommends that you limit your daily fat intake to 20 to 35 percent of the calories you consume. For children, the daily fat intake should be 30 to 35 percent for those between ages 2 and 3 and 25 to 35 percent for those between ages 4 and 18.

The good fats

No matter how much you eat, most of your fat calories should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They play a positive role in managing cholesterol levels. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, can build up on artery walls and turn to plaque, leading to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, helps remove plaque from artery walls.

The best choice for your heart is monounsaturated fat, because it's been shown to lower LDL levels but not HDL levels. Sources of monounsaturated fat include:

  • Olive oil

  • Canola oil

  • Peanut oil

  • Avocados

  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, and macadamia)

Polyunsaturated fat also may help lower LDL levels, but this type of fat may slightly reduce HDL levels as well. Sources of polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Safflower oil

  • Soybean oil

  • Corn oil

  • Sunflower seed oil

  • Walnuts

The bad fats

Saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol are the fats that boost the risk for coronary heart disease and stroke. Trans fats are most often found in processed foods and hydrogenated oils. You should try to limit your intake of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your calories and avoid trans fat as much as possible. Limit your intake of cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day, the USDA recommends.

The best way to limit your saturated fat is to cut back on animal fats. These fats can be found in full-fat cheese, whole milk, butter, full-fat ice cream, and fatty meats such as bacon, sausage, and poultry skin. Trans fat is found in foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as commercially prepared snack foods, cookies, and desserts. Stick margarine, french fries, onion rings, and other fried foods also contain trans fat. Cholesterol is found in egg yolks and organ meats.

Limit or avoid these foods, which are high in saturated fat, or look for low-fat or nonfat versions:

  • Butter

  • Cream

  • Cheese

  • Red meat (beef, mutton, lamb, pork)

  • Ice cream

  • Mayonnaise

  • Cake

  • Cookies

Medical Reviewer: [Coleman, Ellen RD, MA, MPH, Fiveash, Laura DrPH MPH RD] Last Annual Review Date: 2011-11-04T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

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Kids who grow quickly as toddlers or teens tend to have lower cholesterol levels as adults, new research says. A 2007 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health also found that people who become overweight after age 15 are more likely to have higher cholesterol levels.