Avoiding all fats means you miss out on the benefits of healthy fats like those in avocados, olive oil and fish. (Fotolia / October 16, 2013)

Fat seems to always top the list of things that are "bad" for you. But for good overall health and to lower risk of heart disease, cancer, or even obesity, scrupulously counting how much fat you consume is not a helpful strategy.

"Focusing only on grams of total fat, whether in a food or in your diet, can lead a person to make poor decisions," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Mass.

High on the list of bad food decisions is eating processed foods and fast foods that bill themselves as low-fat, reduced-fat, or fat-free. Lowering total fat alone does not make a food healthier, and many of these products are high in salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates.

For example, low-fat deli sandwiches are loaded with salt and refined carbohydrates and low-fat frozen yogurt or low-fat muffins may contain a lot of refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and sugar.

More important, avoiding all fats means you miss out on the benefits of healthy fats, like those in nuts, fish, avocados and olive oil. Recent research suggests that extra-virgin olive oil is particularly beneficial.

"A common mistake is to avoid and replace foods that have healthy fats and that are good for you with low-fat processed and packaged foods that are high in refined carbohydrates and sodium," Dr. Mozaffarian says.

Instead of obsessing about fats, focus on healthy foods.

"Eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, vegetable oils, whole grains and modest portions of dairy," Dr. Mozaffarian advises. "Avoid processed meats, sugary beverages, and foods high in refined grains, starches, sugars and salt."


One reason we tend to be preoccupied with fat is its connection with heart disease. Fat--particularly saturated fat from animal foods--is bad for the heart, right?

Dr. Mozaffarian and his colleagues have taken a hard look at the scientific evidence that consuming a lot of saturated fat leads to heart disease.

"The association is not as firmly established as many people believe," he says. "The evidence does not support a major benefit of focusing on saturated fat alone, without considering the overall food itself and what is eaten instead."

The take-home message: Don't avoid a food simply because it contains some saturated fat, and don't think a food is healthy only because it is saturated fat-free. That means a fast-food sandwich that bills itself as "low-fat" may still be a Trojan horse for heart disease if it contains processed or cured meats, which research has consistently linked to heart disease.


More important than total fat intake is what kind of fats you eat and from which foods. Unsaturated fats, for example, are healthier choices than foods rich in saturated fat from animal sources, foods containing partially hydrogenated oils and trans fat, and foods high in refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars.

Unsaturated fats exist in two forms: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. You can obtain polyunsaturated fats from salmon and other fatty fish, as well as corn, soybean, safflower and cottonseed oils. Rich sources of monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, canola and peanut oils, and most nuts.

The most unhealthy type of fat is trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats form when vegetable oils are processed to make them more solid at room temperature. You'll find trans fats in many baked goods (such as donuts, muffins and pie crusts), snack foods (crackers, popcorn), and some fried foods. No amount of trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils is considered healthy.


When we prepare meals, we don't reach for fats--we reach for foods. This is one key to solving the dietary fat dilemma.