Facts About Fat: The Difference Between Healthy and Harmful Fats

A weight loss and nutrition specialist explains the different types of fats

According to Dr. Caroline Cederquist, a board-certified weight loss physician with a specialization in nutrition, metabolism, and weight management and author of The MD Factor, many people tend to think of fat—both the kind that we store in our bodies and the kinds found in certain foods— as too general of a term.

She says that in both cases there are different types, and that understanding what they are and how they’re different is an important part of maintaining a balanced diet as well as overall good health and wellness.

“[There are] a few different types of fats in our body,” she said. “White, visceral, and brown.”

White fat, she explained, acts as a cushion and serves to provide a “storage depot” for any extra calories that we consume.

Visceral fat is a type of white fat that’s found specifically in the abdomen and around our internal organs.

“Visceral fat is the fat that causes the most health risks from excess fat,” Cederquist said. “This fat can secrete hormones that damage cell membranes and cause us to have a problem with the metabolism and utilization of glucose.”

And finally, brown fat, according to Cederquist, is present in small amounts in our bodies and is sometimes referred to as a “healthier fat.”

She explained that adults have some brown fat, but that it’s mostly present in infants because it helps to keep them warm and produce energy.

Because we know that visceral fat is most harmful to our health, it’s important that we watch our weight, specifically by maintaining a healthy waist size, through regular exercise and diet.

Cederquist says that just like there are different types of fat within the body, foods contain different types of fat too, and some are not as healthy as others.

“Not all fats are equal,” she explained. “They are either saturated or unsaturated— the difference lies in their chemical structure.”

She suggests limiting your intake of saturated fats because the qualities that qualify them as saturated are what allow them to be deposited in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease and other related complications.

“Unsaturated fats are more heart-healthy and can even bring down cholesterol levels because they are beneficial since they are more usable by your body,” Cederquist said.

To help identify the different types of fats found in certain foods she shared the following examples:

A full-fat latte contains saturated fat; avocados contain monounsaturated fat; and nuts contain polyunsaturated fat.

Cederquist most recommends that you incorporate both mono- and poly-unsaturated fats in your diet.

“These types of healthier fats can be found in forms of real foods like avocados, nuts, and olive oils,” she said. “Some saturated fat from cheese, eggs, lean beef, and chicken is ok to have in your diet, but you still need to be conscious of the amount that is eaten.”

Her final piece of dietary advice: always avoid trans fats and limit your intake of polyunsaturated fats that come from vegetable oils because they are most often found in junk foods.