Dietary fats, oils and cholesterol
You need a small amount of fat in your diet for healthy functioning. Oils and fats supply calories and essential fats and help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. The type of fat is more important for health than the total amount of fat consumed.
That's why it's important to choose healthier unsaturated fats. Eating too much and the wrong kinds of fats, such as saturated and trans fats, may raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy HDL cholesterol. This imbalance can increase your risk of high blood pressure, narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attack and stroke.
Canada's Food Guide recommends that you include a small amount – 30 to 45 mL (2 to 3 tablespoons) – of unsaturated fat each day (also known as mono- and polyunsaturated fat). Make sure the oil you use in cooking, salad dressings, soft non-hydrogenated margarine and mayonnaise contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as olive, soybean, canola or peanut oils.
These have been shown to improve blood cholesterol levels. They're found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, non-hydrogenated margarine, avocados and some nuts such as almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans and hazelnuts.
These fats can lower bad cholesterol levels (LDL cholesterol). One type of polyunsaturated fat is omega-3, which can help prevent clotting of blood, reducing the risk of stroke and also helps lower triglycerides, a type of blood fat linked to heart disease. The best sources of omega-3 fat are cold-water fish such as mackerel, sardines, herring, rainbow trout and salmon, as well as canola and soybean oils, omega-3 eggs, flaxseed, walnuts, pecans and pine nuts. Because there are so many varieties of fish and seafood available, get some tips to help you select the healthiest types and ways to enjoy eating them.
Another type of polyunsaturated fat is omega-6. It helps lower LDL cholesterol, but in large amounts it's thought to also lower the good HDL cholesterol. Eat it in moderation. Omega-6 is found in safflower, sunflower and corn oils, non-hydrogenated margarine and nuts such as almonds, pecans, brazil nuts and sunflower seeds. It is also in many prepared meals.
Saturated fat can raise bad (LDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The research on saturated fat consumption and effects on health is not clear. Emerging evidence suggests that saturated fats might affect your health differently depending on the food source of the saturated fat.
Foods high in saturated fat include fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, butter, hard margarines, lard, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), vegetable ghee, and palm oil. But highly processed foods are a major source of saturated fats in the Canadian diet. These foods have many ingredients and go through complex changes in a factory so the food doesn’t look like its original source. Highly processed foods include hot dogs, burgers, deli meats, cookies, donuts, cakes, chips, French fries and other snack foods. By avoiding these highly processed foods, consumption of saturated fat will decrease, as well as sugar, sodium and trans fats.
Like saturated fat, trans fat raises unhealthy LDL cholesterol but also lowers healthy HDL cholesterol. Try to limit products that list vegetable oil shortening or partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients. Trans fat is found in partially hydrogenated margarines, deep-fried foods from fast-food outlets (fries, doughnuts), and many packaged crackers, cookies and commercially baked products.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation is working to reduce trans fats in Canada's food supply. Read more.
How much fat should you eat in a day?
Remember that since all fats are calorie-heavy, you'll need to use even the healthier ones in moderation. The type of fat consumed is more important than the amount of fat consumed. Focus on a healthy balanced diet of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and protein from a variety of sources such as legumes, nuts, lower-fat dairy and alternatives, lean meats, and fish. Limit how many highly processed foods you eat. Look at the big picture rather than fat alone. By avoiding highly processed foods and choosing whole, natural foods instead, you reduce the amount of saturated fat and trans fat in your diet.
The amount of fat a child or adolescent needs depends on their height, build, gender and activity level. Young children need a slightly higher amount of fat for growth and development, but this need decreases as they age.
What is dietary cholesterol?
The liver makes about 80% of the cholesterol in your body. The other 20% comes from the foods you eat. The foods that raise your blood cholesterol the most are saturated fat and trans fat in such foods as fatty meat and whole-fat dairy products, snack foods and some ready-prepared foods. Foods that have high levels of dietary cholesterol include egg yolks, organ meats, shrimp, squid and fatty meats.
Dietary cholesterol only has an effect in some people. From a nutrition perspective, the best way to control blood cholesterol is to eat a healthy diet that is lower in fat, especially saturated and trans fat. Studies show that for healthy people with no history of heart disease, diabetes or high blood cholesterol, eating an average of one egg per day (or seven eggs per week) does not increase the long-term risk of heart disease. Read more about eggs.
If you eat a healthy, balanced diet of whole/natural foods and few or no highly processed foods as well as follow the recommended serving sizes, saturated fat intake should not be an issue.
If you have heart disease or diabetes, speak to your healthcare provider about what recommendations for cholesterol and fat intake apply to you.
Read more about how to lower your cholesterol through activity and food, including plant sterols. For more information on dietary fats and cholesterol, please see our healthy eating brochure here.
Last reviewed August 2012
Last modified November 2015