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Fats are a much-maligned food. Many people don't understand that they are an essential nutrient and some are actually good for you. Fats transport antioxidants and vitamins A, D, E, and K through the body, improve the taste of super-healthy foods like vegetables, and increase satiety - a feeling of fullness. Certain essential fatty acids (like the omega 3s) are very good for the skin, eyes, and brain, and, according to many studies, decrease the risk of heart disease.

Fats, even the healthy ones, are high in calories. In limited quantities, they can be part of any eating plan, but if you're trying to lose weight, don't exceed your daily exchanges. It may help to think of and use fats as flavorings--seasonings--rather than food. For example, if you slice a few Kalamata olives into a Greek salad, rather than eating a bowl of those same olives, you can enjoy the flavor and health benefits of olives without adding too many calories to your daily diet.

Healthy and Unhealthy Fats Exchanges

Healthy and Unhealthy Fats

Some, but not all, fats are healthful. Most unsaturated fats--clear oils, nuts, seeds (especially flax, sunflower, and pumpkin), and the fats from fish--are high in essential fatty acids. Fish, flax seeds, and walnuts are particularly high in omega 3s. You should have some unsaturated fats every day.

Saturated fats, the ones that raise cholesterol, usually come from animal products. Cream, butter, cheese (except light cheese: cheese that has 5 grams of fat or less per ounce. It's fine to have this every day, even twice a day if you like it.) and bacon all contain excessive saturated fat; but so, surprisingly, does coconut milk. These fats are best avoided or eaten only occasionally in their light versions.

Worst of all are the hydrogenated fats (also called "trans-fat"), man-made fats that are the secret ingredient in many snacks: crackers, cookies, chips, even some cereals and breads. In addition to being fattening and devoid of the health benefits of the unsaturated fats, trans-fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL). Stick margarine is pure trans-fat. The best defense is to read labels: if "hydrogenated fat" is one of the first ingredients, don't buy the product!

Fat exchanges

Remember how many exchanges you're allowed each day and don't exceed your limit.

Each fat exchange on this list is a first choice and contains about:

  • 5 grams of fat
  • 45 calories

Note: Two tablespoons of nuts or seeds count as one and a half fat exchanges and half a protein exchange.

Monounsaturated fatsPolyunsaturated fatsLight saturdated fats

1 teaspoon olive, peanut or canola oil

12 almonds or cashews
(2 tablespoons)

12 mixed nuts
(2 tablespoons)

12 peanuts or pistachios
(2 tablespoons)

8 pecan halves
(2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon natural peanut butter

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 tablespoons avocado

1 teaspoon tub margarine made of olive or canola oil, such as Earth Balance® or Fleischmann's® olive oil spread.

1 teaspoon corn, safflower, or corn oil

8 walnut halves
(2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons flax, pumpkin, or sunflower seeds

1 tablespoon clear salad dressing

2 tablespoons reduced fat salad dressing

1 tablespoon reduced fat mayonnaise

1 tablespoon light tub margarine, such as Promise® Light (no trans fat)

1 tablespoon light whipped butter

2 tablespoons reduced fat cream cheese

1/4 cup light sour cream dip

3 tablespoons light sour cream

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