Fat facts: what you need to know about the 4 types of fats in foods

  • 5 Minutes Read
Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN Registered Dietitian

You know fats are high in calories, but did you know there are 4 major types of fats, and some you really need? Learn how to customize your targets and make the wisest choices.

4 types of fat

Total Fat: the sum of the 4 types of fat

MyNetDiary's default goal is 35% of calories from total fat.

Fats give us more than just taste and satisfaction. Fats provide essential fatty acids necessary for health and allow us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. This article examines the 4 major types of fat: saturated, trans fats, unsaturated, and monounsaturated. When we refer to "total fat," we mean the sum of all 4 of these. Read on to learn more about the differences, their necessity, and impact on our well-being.

Like carbs and protein, fat is a macronutrient ("macro"). Fat provides 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram of carbs or protein. Many of our users are trying to lose weight and/or manage blood sugar. Therefore MyNetDiary uses default macro goals to encourage healthy proteins and fats while controlling carb intake. The goals are within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range developed by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. These ranges allow for consumption of essential nutrients, like fats, while limiting chronic disease risk.

Macronutrient DRI: Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges MyNetDiary Default Goal
Fat20-35% of total calories35% of total calories
Carbohydrate45-65% of total calories45% of total calories
Protein10-35% of total calories20% of total calories

Tip: If you follow a plan that requires a different macronutrient distribution, customize your goals with a Premium membership.

Types of Fat

All fats and oils contain a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, but each differ in proportion. For instance, olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat, whereas coconut oil is mainly saturated fat. We break it down for you below.

Saturated Fat

MyNetDiary's default goal for saturated fat is 10% of calories or less. If you have diabetes or are at increased risk for heart disease, your healthcare provider's recommendation may be lower.

Saturated fats typically solidify at room temperature. Although saturated fats are mostly found in meat and dairy foods, they appear in such tropical fats as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil. Another source of saturated fat is fully hydrogenated vegetable oil, often used to substitute for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

You do not need to eliminate all sources of saturated fat from your diet for better heart-health. That would be impossible if you eat any fat-containing foods at all! However, current guidelines emphasize a shift to consuming more unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) relative to saturated fats. This shift helps reduce LDL blood cholesterol and risk for heart disease.

To learn the science behind saturated fat guidelines, read Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association.

Suppose you follow an eating plan higher in saturated fat, such as a low-carb or keto diet? In that case, ask your healthcare provider if you should monitor your blood cholesterol level on one of these diets. If you have specific questions about fat consumption targets, ask your healthcare provider for guidance.

MyNetDiary tips:

Trans Fat

MyNetDiary's goal for trans fat is 0% of calories. It is consistent with recommendations from the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Trans fats are the most harmful for heart health, increasing blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol associated with heart disease risk.

Though naturally occurring trans fats are found in small amounts in meat and dairy foods, foods made with partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) are the biggest source of trans fats. Before becoming banned by the FDA ban, PHOs were common in restaurant food, vegetable shortening, deep-fat fried foods, stick margarine, and packaged baked goods.

Read food labels and ingredient lists to see if your foods contain PHOs or trans fat. The trans fat content will be 0 grams unless the amount is over 0.5 gram per serving. But if PHO is in the ingredient list, the product contains some trans fats.

MyNetDiary Tip: View Daily Analysis for a quick view of your trans fat intake compared to your goal. You can also see which of your foods contributed the most to your intake.

Unsaturated fats: the healthy fats

Polyunsaturated fat

MyNetDiary's default goal for polyunsaturated fats is 12.5% of calories, consistent with the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume relatively more unsaturated fats than saturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats are considered heart-healthy and plentiful in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, fish, and seafood. Oils with mostly polyunsaturated fats maintain liquid form at room temperature.

Essential fatty acids: you need these types of polyunsaturated fat

Our bodies cannot manufacture linoleic acid (an omega-6 fat) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat), so these essential fatty acids must come from the diet. Since the data on these specific fatty acids is not easily accessible from the USDA National Nutrient Database, they are not required on food labels. They are not tracked on MyNetDiary.

Rich linoleic acid sources include vegetable oils (especially soybean oil), nuts, seeds, meats, and eggs. Thankfully, you'll find linoleic acid easily in many plant and animal foods. Adequate Intake (AI) determined by the Dietary Reference Intakes, depending upon age and sex, is 11-17 grams of linoleic acid.

Good sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flaxseed oil and flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts, walnut oil, and soybean oil. Depending upon age and sex, Adequate Intake is 1.1-1.6 grams of alpha-linolenic acid.
You'll easily meet these essential fatty acid goals if your fat intake is not severely restricted.


Cold-water fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are high in the heart-healthy omega-3s, DHA and EPA. There is no established recommended intake of DHA and EPA. We convert a small amount of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA.

Monounsaturated Fat

MyNetDiary's default goal for monounsaturated fat is 12.5% of calories or more.

You'll find heart-healthy monounsaturated fats plentiful in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, almonds, pecans, and peanuts. Oils with mostly monounsaturated fat also stay liquid at room temperature.

Mediterranean diet means monounsaturated fat benefits! Studies have shown that people following traditional eating plans from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea tend to have less heart disease. Mediterranean diet patterns feature extra virgin olive oil as the main oil. High in monounsaturated fat, olive oil contains polyphenols (a heart-healthy antioxidant). MyNetDiary's default macro goals are compatible with a Mediterranean-style diet.

You can drizzle olive oil and other cold-pressed oils over your food or use them for baking, roasting, and sauteing. The antioxidant content is highest in unheated oil. Canola and peanut oils are also significant sources of monounsaturated fat and are good options for high-temperature cooking. Read our tips for choosing cooking oils here.

More MyNetDiary tips

  • Values for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat are required on food labels in the United States and are part of your MyNetDiary Daily Analysis.
  • Because polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are not required on nutrition labels, there is missing data for brand-name foods. Unfortunately, this means your nutrition report will underestimate these fats. To minimize missing data, use generic foods instead of branded foods.
  • Of the 4 types of fat, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats should make up most of your fat intake for a healthier heart.
  • Measure portion size instead of guessing for significant fat sources (e.g., oils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, chocolate, butter, coconut oil, etc.). Small portion-size errors mean big calorie errors when it comes to fats.
  • Premium members: to see your unsaturated fat intake relative to saturated fats, select Macronutrients in the Charts section. The chart will display your total unsaturated fat intake.
  • Reviewed and revised by Sue Heikkinen MS, RDN, CDCES on October 13, 2020.

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    Nov 11, 2020
    Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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