Confused About Fats? Here’s the Skinny

By Ed Bauman, M.Ed., Ph.D. and Barbara Liss, N.E.

It is essential to learn how to differentiate good fats from bad. Despite prevailing rhetoric, it can be as unhealthy to fear and avoid all fats as it is to consume them in large quantities.

Our bodies create substances from fats that are necessary for good health. Some fats absolutely must be obtained from the diet — hence the term “essential fatty acids.” Other fats can be derived from these as they are broken down and metabolized in the body. Fat is used to store energy, make hormones, and transport vitamins, among other important functions. For a moderately active person, approximately one third to one half of one’s daily calories can come from healthful fats.

It is useful to think of fats as building blocks – and the better the blocks, the stronger the building. If there are only broken or damaged blocks available, you can still build a house, but the house won’t have a strong foundation and eventually there will be problems.

Good Fats

Certain essential fatty acids are extremely beneficial. These include :

  • Omega-3s, found in oily fish, algae, some seeds and nuts, and in cows raised on pasture;
  • Omega-6s rich in GLA (gamma linolenic acid), found in evening primrose, borage, and red current oils; and omega-6s rich in linoleic acid, found primarily in nuts, seeds, and whole grains
  • Omega 9s, found in olives, avocados, and nuts; and
  • Raw or lightly cooked saturated fats, found in coconut, palm, raw dairy, and pastured animal foods

In our not so distant past, people consumed a healthful balance of oils and fats, which kept their immune systems strong, their hormones in balance, their thinking clear, their energy even throughout the day, their skin, hair, and eyes healthy, and helped them maintain a healthy weight. Today, Americans consume large quantities of corrupted fats – found in packaged and processed foods, commercially baked goods, and fried foods – and not enough of the beneficial fats found in algae, fish, pastured animals and their products, nuts, and seeds.

A general description of good fats is that they are naturally-occurring and haven’t been damaged by high heat, refining, or over-processing. The best fats are found in:

  • Fish (such as salmon and sardines)
  • Nuts
  • Avocados
  • Seeds
  • Fresh, organic creamery butter
  • Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
  • Flax, chia, hemp, and pumpkin seeds
  • Organic, preferably pastured whole milk products
  • Pastured eggs
  • Pastured beef, pork, and poultry (and including eggs and raw dairy)
  • Coconut
  • Palm oil

Bad Fats

Saturated fats, which come mostly from animals – such as are found in butter, meats, and dairy products – have a bad reputation, but many nutrition experts believe it is not animal fat, per se, that is the problem, but the fact that they are usually refined, heated at high temperatures, or polluted by commercial farming methods. Due to abundant antibiotic and steroid use, fats from conventionally fed factory-farm animals should probably be consumed with caution, if at all.

“Bad fats” are damaged. They have become oxidized due to high heat processing, which removes healthful nutrients like vitamin E and creates lipid compounds that the body cannot utilize for healthy cell building.

Fats are often described as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. All have different properties. In general, the monounsaturates (such as olive oil, avocado, and some nut oils) are good for you. We definitely need some saturated fats, but avoid those that have been exposed to high heat or chemical contamination, if possible. Polyunsaturates (especially in the form of refined vegetable oils) can be detrimental to your health over time, so choose a more healthful fat when given a choice. Remember to read food labels, and avoid partially hydrogenated fats whenever you see them.

Here is a quick guide to the best and worst fats:

“Good” fats “Bad” fats
Fish oils
Flaxseed oil and meal
Olive oil & olives
Pastured animals & their products
Coconut & its oil
Palm oil
Fried foods
Partially hydrogenated fats
Refined vegetable oils
Saturated fats, in excess
Most polyunsaturated fats


There is no need to be afraid of fat. Our bodies and brains require the healthful forms of fats in order to function well. Enjoy some good fats in your diet every day and you will reap their health benefits.