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Fats, oils and heart health

Healthy living


Healthy eating


Fats, oils and heart health

Get the right balance of healthy fats in your diet

Key takeaways

5 min read

  • The type of fat you eat plays an important role in your heart health.
  • ​Choose healthy fat options, which include nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking. 
  • Discover easy swaps and tips to increase your intake of healthy fats. 

While eating fatty food may sound like a bad thing, some fats can play an essential role in keeping your heart healthy. 

Many foods we eat contain different fats and some are healthier than others.

Choosing healthy fats can:

  • Aid healthier blood cholesterol levels. 

  • Lower other cardiovascular (heart) risk factors. 

  • Add flavour to food. 

What are the different types of fats? 

There are four main types of fats:

  • Monounsaturated fats 

  • Polyunsaturated fats 

  • Saturated fats 

  • Trans fats. 

Healthy fats 

They include: 

  • Monounsaturated fats  

  • Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6). 

Foods rich in healthy fats include: 

  • Nuts and seeds and their butters/spreads  

  • Olives and avocados and their oils/spreads 

  • ​Oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines 

Unhealthy fats  

They include:

  • Saturated fat  

  • Trans fat

Foods rich in unhealthy fats include: 

  • Animal fats including butter, ghee and lard along with the visible fat/skin on meat 

  • Hydrogenated plant oils like copha, vegetable shortening and some margarines

  • Coconut oil 

  • ​Processed foods such as baked goods (cakes, biscuits and pastries), processed meat ( bacon, sausages, salami) and fried and takeaway foods. 

Replace foods rich in saturated and trans fats with foods rich in healthy unsaturated fats as part of a healthy diet. 

Choose foods with healthy fats such as avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, and use healthy oils for cooking, for example, olive, canola, sunflower, peanut and soybean oil.

Reduce the amount of highly processed food you eat (such as baked goods including cakes, biscuits and pastries, along with processed meat, and fried and takeaway foods). These foods are high in saturated and trans fats, added sugar and salt, and are not part of a heart-healthy eating pattern. Try to have these foods only sometimes and in small amounts.    

The relationship between heart disease and fats 

Unsaturated fats  

Unsaturated fats can help improve cholesterol levels by decreasing bad (LDL) cholesterol and increasing good (HDL) cholesterol. Low LDL cholesterol levels can help lower your risk of heart disease. 

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat that can help: 

  • Lower heart rate and improve heart rhythm. 

  • Decrease the risk of clotting. 

  • Lower triglycerides. 

  • Reduce blood pressure. 

  • Improve blood vessel function.  

  • Delay the build-up of plaque (a fatty substance) in your arteries. 

Unhealthy saturated and trans fats  

Unhealthy saturated and trans fats can heighten your risk of heart disease by increasing the bad (LDL) cholesterol. Of all fats, trans fat is the worst for health and is associated with an increased risk, incidence and mortality from heart disease.  

How much fat should you eat a day? 

It’s the big picture that matters. The type of fat you eat is more important than the total amount.  

You can get the balance of fats right by: 

  • Choosing more foods with healthy fats, and less foods with unhealthy fats (see our tips below)   

  • When cooking and preparing foods, choose olive oil (along with sunflower, peanut and sesame oils) over animal fats. 

  • Include more meals which use legumes (including beans and lentils) and oily fish instead of meals with red meat and/or processed meat.  

  • Choose foods from our heart healthy eating pattern to help make healthy choices, and get the right balance of fats.   

Eat more healthy fats  

Foods that contain healthy monounsaturated fats include:

  • Avocados 

  • Unsalted nuts such as almonds, cashews and peanuts  

  • Olives  

  • Cooking oils made from plants or seeds, including: olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, soybean, sesame and safflower. 

Foods that contain healthy polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6) include: 

  • Fish 

  • Tahini (sesame seed spread) 

  • Linseed (flaxseed) and chia seeds 

  • Soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola oil and margarine spreads made from these oils 

  • Pine nuts, walnuts and brazil nuts. 

Try to eat omega-3 from all three sources 

1. Marine

  • Oily fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines 

  • Barramundi 

  • Flathead 

  • Scallops 

  • Mussels. 

2. Plant  

  • Walnuts 

  • Linseeds (flaxseeds) 

  • Chia seeds 

  • ​Oils and spreads. 

3. Animal  

  • Eggs 

  • Chicken 

  • Beef. 

Help lower your cholesterol with plant sterols 

To lower LDL-cholesterol the Heart Foundation recommends adults consume 2 to 3 grams of plant sterols per day from plant sterol enriched foods.  Plant sterols are cholesterol-like substances that can lower cholesterol levels. They are found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals but only in small amounts.  

To help meet the 2 to 3 grams of plant sterols per day, look for foods which have plant sterols added, such as: 

  • Margarine  

  • Milk  

  • Yoghurt  

  • ​Breakfast cereal

You can check the nutrition information panel  to see what a serving size is and if plant sterols have been added. For advice on how to read a nutrition information panel click here.

Eat less unhealthy fat-containing foods 

Saturated fats  

Saturated fats can be found in both animal and plant products. When eating less saturated fat, the foods you replace it with are important. Follow the Heart Foundation’s heart healthy eating pattern to achieve a healthy mix of fats.

Foods that commonly contain saturated fats include: 

  • Butter 

  • Coconut oil 

  • Palm oil (often called vegetable oil in products) 

  • Processed foods, such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, and takeaway foods 

  • Lard 

  • Ghee 

  • Copha 

  • Dripping 

  • Fat on meat  

  • The skin on chicken and other poultry 

  • Processed or deli-style meats, such as salami, ham, and bacon 

  • Cream 

  • Ice cream. 

Trans fats  

Trans fats are found naturally in some foods, such as butter, dairy and some meat products. Most of the trans fats eaten in Australia are from processed foods. 

Some trans fat-containing foods to eat less of include:  

  • Deep-fried foods 

  • Biscuits, cakes and pastries 

  • Butter 

  • Takeaway foods, such as hamburgers, pizza and hot chips 

  • Foods that list ‘hydrogenated oils’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oils’ on the ingredients list. 

Increase healthy fats in your diet

Making healthier food choices can be difficult. The table below provides some healthy alternatives for a snack or meal.

Swap this  For this 
Muffins, chips or biscuits  Fruit, nuts or veggie sticks 
Deep-fried foods  Steamed, boiled or pan-fried foods 
Butter or coconut oil in cooking Olive, canola, peanut or sunflower oils 
Butter as a spread  Avocado, nut butters, tahini or margarine made from healthy oils  
Sausages and other processed deli meats  Healthy protein sources (fish, legumes, chicken, lean red meat) 

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Last updated23 October 2023