The Scoop on Fat: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

By Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.

Fat is a concentrated source of calories because it has nine calories per gram. Carbohydrate and protein each have only four calories per gram.  So, fat has 2 1/4 times more calories per gram than carbohydrate and protein.  Besides providing energy, fat is also important for promoting absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, promoting effective nerve transmission, body insulation of your organs,  and in furnishing essential fatty acids necessary for proper growth and development.  The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 30% of your calories from fat with less than 10% of your calories from saturated fat. However, if you have a history of heart disease,  I currently recommend restricting your fat intake to  20-25% of your calories from fat. Check Table 1. FAT GRAM TOTALS FOR DIFFERENT PERCENTAGES OF TOTAL CALORIESto determine how many fat grams you can consume each day for good health.

Types of Fat

       There are two different types of fat which are important in health maintenance: saturated fat and unsaturated fat.  Unsaturated fats include polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat and trans fat.

Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature. Saturated fat is found in meat, butter, dairy products made with whole milk, and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil.  Saturated fat has been known for years to be bad for your heart because it increases the low-density lipoproteins (LDL – “lousy cholesterol) increasing the risk of heart disease which is the leading cause of death in the US.

Polyunsaturated fat is found mostly in corn, safflower, sesame, soybean and safflower oil.  Monounsaturated fat is found mostly in olive, peanut and canola oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados. However, polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fats can be found together in a variety of foods. Monunsaturated and some polyunsaturated fats have been shown to help protect against heart disease because they tend to lower the LDL.

Trans fat are polyunsaturated oils that have been hardened by hydrogenation and changed the chemical shapes causing this type of fat to act exactly like saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends that trans fat should be eliminated completely from the diet if possible.

Trans fat is found margarine which has been hydrogenated to make the oil solid.  fully and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, some breads, hard margarines, vegetable shortening, fried foods like fried chicken, chicken nuggets, doughnuts, hard taco shells, snack foods like potato, corn, tortilla chips, microwave popcorn, pre-mixed products like cake mix, pancake mix and chocolate milk mix, and other foods which may contain hydrogenated margarines.



Total Calories                           30%                               25%                  20%

4000                                        133                                111                      89

3500                                        117                                 97                     78

3000                                        100                                 83                     67

2900                                        97                                  81                      64

2800                                        93                                  78                     62

2700                                        90                                  75                     60

2600                                        87                                  72                     58

2500                                        83                                 69                     56

2400                                        80                                  67                     53

2300                                        77                                  64                     51

2200                                        73                                  61                      49

2100                                         70                                  58                     47

2000                                         67                                 56                     44

1900                                         63                                  53                     42

1800                                         60                                 50                     40

1700                                         57                                  47                     38

1600                                         53                                  44                     36

1500                                         50                                 42                     33

1400                                         47                                  39                     31

1300                                         43                                  36                     29

1200                                         40                                 33                     27


Essential Fatty Acids That Our Body’s Cannot Make 

There are two essential fatty acids (EFA) that we have to get through our diets because our body’s cannot make them. These are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. EFAs are important in keeping out body’s healthy by helping to regulating blood pressure, regulating blood lipids, assisting in the immune response by decreasing inflammation in response to an injury or an infection. EFAs make up the walls of cell membranes in the brain and nerves and essential for normal growth and development in infants.

Help Fight Inflammation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are important polyunsaturated fats. They are called essential fatty acids because the human body needs them to survive. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are both found in fish and shellfish.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant sources.

While the body can manufacture both EPA andDHAfrom ALA, it cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids completely on its own. Therefore, they must be consumed in the diet. In addition, the marine types are more effectively utilized, whereasALAtakes longer to be converted to omega-3 fats acids.

Because DHA foods are important to the proper brain growth and development in infants they are very important during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Fighting Inflammation

Omega-3 fatty acid can fight inflammation in a variety of ways.

  • Reduces blood clot formation. Omega-3 fatty acids act as a natural anticoagulant by altering the ability of platelets in your blood to clump together.
  • Inhibits the growth of plaque. Omega-3 fatty acids help keep the lining of the arteries smooth and clear of damage that can lead to the thickening and hardening of the arteries.
  • Decreases triglycerides and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). High triglyceride values and VLDL cholesterol are associated with increased risk for heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease the rate at which these two substances are produced in the liver.
  • May increase levels of the good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Because omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride levels, they may also increaseHDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects against the development of heart disease.
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties. The development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is thought to involve your body’s inflammatory response. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of substances that are released during the inflammatory response and in doing so, prevent substances from accumulating and sticking to the lining of the arteries.
  • May lower blood pressure. Several studies have examined the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on blood pressure. Those who eat fish tend to have lower incidence of high blood pressure.

Food Sources

Cold water varieties of fish, such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines and herring, contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid is not converted to omega-3 fats as efficiently in the human body as fish sources. Good sources ofALAare flaxseeds; flax oil; canola oil; walnuts, pecans and other nuts; soybean oil and tofu. Currently, there are no established serving size recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids, but adding these foods to your diet regularly will help fight inflammation in your body. For example, some health professionals recommend adding 2 tablespoons of ground or milled flaxseed to your diet each day because it is also a good source of fiber and cancer-fighting lignin. Ground flaxseed is also high in dietary fiber.

Some food companies are adding omega-3 fatty acids to their products. These foods include eggs, peanut butter, buttery spreads, popcorn and mayonnaise. Read the labels to determine the amount and type of omega-3 fatty acids in the product.  

Recommended Amounts

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that patients without documented coronary heart disease eat two servings per week of fatty fish.  However, if you have heart disease, your physician may recommend increasing your food sources of omega-3 to reach a daily goal of one gram of EPA and DHA, or they may suggest taking a fish oil supplement.


If you have high triglyceride levels (including those who are taking triglyceride-lowering medications), your physician may also recommend increasing food sources of omega-3. The AHA recommends 2-4 grams of EPA+DHA daily to effectively lower your triglycerides. However, anyone who takes more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements should be under a physician’s care.

Take note: A high intake of omega-3 fatty acids may cause bleeding in some people, especially if you are also taking aspirin or warfarin.  Make sure your physician knows you are taking omega-3 supplements.

Fish Oil Supplements

To determine how many grams of omega-3 fats are in a capsule, look for the words EPA and DHAon the supplement label. Adding up the number of grams or milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHAwill tell you how much omega-3 fat is in each capsule. For example, a 1 g capsule may contain 250 mg EPA and 250 mg DHA, which adds up to 500 mg or 0.5 g of omega-3 fat. For better results, choose supplements that contain the largest amount of EPA and DHAper capsule. To make sure your supplement has the right amount of omega-3 fats, go to They take the supplement off the shelf and test to ensure the label amounts advertised are correct.


Incorporating Omega-3 Fatty Acids Into Your Daily Diet   

•  Substitute fish for chicken in one of your favorite recipes.

•    Add chopped nuts, such as walnuts, to your salad.

•  Substitute fish for chicken in one of your favorite salad recipes.

•    Eat a handful of nuts as a snack.

•    Sprinkle ground flaxseed in your cereal, yogurt or salad.

•    Eat a tuna salad sandwich and add some nuts and omega-3 chopped eggs.

•    Use trans-fat free margarine with added omega-3 fats as a spread.

Amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Selected Fish and Seafood
Fish Serving Size Amount of Omega-3 Fat
Atlantic Salmon or Herring 3 oz., cooked 1.9 grams
Blue Fin Tuna 3 oz., cooked 1.5 grams
Sardines, canned 3 oz. in tomato sauce 1.5 grams
Anchovies, canned 2 oz., drained 1.2 grams
Atlantic Mackerel 3 oz., cooked 1.15 grams
Salmon, canned 3 oz., drained 1.0 gram
Swordfish 3 oz., cooked 0.9. gram
Sea Bass (mixed species) 3 oz., cooked 0.65 gram
Tuna, white meat, canned 3 oz., drained 0.5 gram
Sole, Flounder, Mussels 3 oz., cooked 0.4 gram
Wild Catfish, Crabmeat, Clams 3 oz., cooked/steamed 0.3 gram
Prawns (jumbo shrimp) 6 pieces 0.15 gram
Atlantic Cod, Lobster 3 oz., cooked/steamed 0.15 gram
Trout, Orange Roughy 3 oz., cooked <0.1 gram


Omega-6 Fatty Acids are Not as Good for Your Health

Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are both essential fatty acids meaning we have to obtain them from our diet. Both are polyunsaturated fat but differ in their chemical structure. Omega-6s are found in seeds and nuts and oil extracted from them. These oils like soybean oil are used in snack foods, cookies, and fast food. Omega-3s are found in cold water fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel and in walnuts and flaxseeds. The healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is a 2:1 ratio which is best to prevent inflammation in our body, however, the current ratio by many Americans is about 4:1. Inflammation in our body increases risk of heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis, and autoimmune diseases. Too many omega-6s can increase inflammation. Omega-3s tend to decrease inflammation. You can alter this ratio by eating less processed foods and more extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, walnuts and ground flax seeds.

The Destructive Nature of Trans Fat

But, in an effort to extend the shelf life of the vegetable oils,  a process known as hydrogenation which added a few hydrogen ions was developed.  This process actually changes the biochemical make-up of the fats by altering the natural “cis” isomer structure to be transformed into an abnormal “trans” isomer structure. This biochemical change caused trans fat to actually develop the plaque found in arteries at a greater rate than even saturated fat.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the late 80’s, I was fortunate to meet an outspoken researcher, Mary Enig, PhD.  Dr. Enig had been researching the effects of  fats on heart disease and was surprised to discover that fats called trans fatty acids (TFAs) , were actually more effective  in increasing the risk of heart disease than the scoundrel – saturated fat.   Her finding was very unpopular at that time and her research was overlooked for a long period of time since many food companies were using trans-containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in margarines and many baked products as well as for frying items like French fries and other fried foods.  But, as a pioneer, she persisted in her efforts to educate the public, forming her own business, Enig Assoicates.  Her efforts have finally paid off.

As of January 1, 2006, all packaged foods and dietary supplements under the jurisdiction of the food and Drug Administration (FDA) must list the amount of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label.  In addition finally, the Institute of Medicine released a report concluding that there is no safe level of trans fat in the diet and that consumers would be wise to reduce its consumption as much as possible.

Nuts to Your Health

Although nuts are high in calories – particularly fat calories – they are actually good for your health. But, too much of a good thing can help pound on the inches. So beware and eat only a small handful to jump start your health.

Cracking the Nut in a Nutshell

While nuts are high in fat, the type of fat is monounsaturated. They also contain protein and fiber.  In addition, nuts contain potassium, folate and an assortment of other vitamins and minerals like magnesium, vitamin E and some calcium.  According to the latest research, a small handful can help to reduce your blood pressure, keep you healthy and decrease metabolic syndrome symptoms.  Nuts are great because they are portable, filling and are nutrient superstars.  But, a little dab will do you.  All the benefits you gain from the nuts will be negated if you gain too much we`ight by eating too many.


Note: To preserve the taste and prevent spoiling of nuts, keep shelled nuts refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 6 months or in the freezer for up to a year. The number of whole walnuts supply your daily goal for omega-3 fats. Walnuts score the highest of all in the omega-3s.


Nutrient Comparison of Nuts: 1 ounce serving

Determine the calories, fat, fiber and vitamin and mineral content based on a one-ounce serving for each of the nuts listed. 


Nutrient         Almonds   Cashews       Peanuts  Pecans  Pistachios        Walnuts

Calories           163          163              166       196           161               185

Protein (g)       6.02         4.34            6.71       2.6          6.05             4.32

Fat (g)            14            13                14           20          13                18

Sat fat (g)      1.1            2.6              1.9          1.8          1.6               1.7

Mono fat (g)    8.8           7.7              7.0         11.6                   6.9               2.5

Poly fat (g)      3.4           2.2              4.4          6.1          3.9               13.3

Fiber (g)         3.5           0.9              2.3          2.7                   2.9               1.9

Calcium (mg)    75            13                15             20        31                28


(mg)              200                   160              187        116          295              125

Folate (mg)      14            20               41              6                   14                28

Vitamin E (mg) 7.43         0.26            1.96       0.4          0.55             0.2

Total  Phyto-

Sterols (mg)   31            45               62           29          61      20



How Many Nuts Equal One Ounce?

Knowing what makes a one-ounce portion can help you manage the extra calories in your balanced meal plan.


Almonds:                24

Brazil nuts:            6 to 8

Cashews:                18

Hazelnuts:             21

Macadamias:       10 to 12

Peanuts:                 28

Pecans:                  20 halves

Pistachios:             47

Walnuts:                14 halves


Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N., is a registered dietitian with a Master’s Degree in clinical nutrition.  The former publisher of Kentuckiana HealthFitness Magazine, Kentuckiana Healthy Woman magazine and radio show host of Health News You Can Use, Barbara has over 30 years of experience in promoting healthy lifestyles to consumers.  Barbara worked as Nutrition Consultant to the Navy SEALs (8 years) and the University of Louisville Athletic Department (10 years). Barbara has private practice, DayByDay Nutrition,, where she counsels clients on weight loss, cholesterol management, performance nutrition and an array of other medical issues.  Visit Barbara’s new website which is an on-line health & wellness magazine, Barbara writes nutrition and health columns for as well as a weekly nutrition column for the Southeast Outlook. She also designs and presents employee wellness programs to small and large businesses. Barbara is a runner, cyclist, hiker and a mother and grandmother to 12 grandchildren.    


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