Not all fats are created equal nor is shunning fat in your diet good for your health or your waistline.

It wasn’t so long ago that following a restrictive low-fat diet was considered the diet of choice.   Being conscious of fat intake is important when it comes to heart health, but avoiding fat altogether can be dangerous say nutrition experts.

Your body definitely needs some fat, says the American Heart Association. Dietary fats keep the machine that is the body humming by creating energy, protecting organs, stimulating cell growth, producing needed hormones and helping the body absorb key nutrients.   

While some fat is essential, too much is more dangerous.

“The standard American diet is really fat-heavy,” said Gina Gordon, manager of bariatric and nutrition programs for Novant Health in the greater Winston-Salem, North Carolina market. “Our bodies naturally produce cholesterol, but how we eat and the choices of fat we make can really impact cholesterol levels.”

Choosing the right types of fat is what is important. The so-called “good fats” fall in the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated categories while “bad fats” are trans fat and saturated fats. The bad fats are responsible for raising the LDL or bad type of cholesterol in the body while the good fats can lower the levels of LDL, reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Examples of polyunsaturated fats are soybean, corn and safflower oil and fatty fish like salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel. The oils provide Vitamin E to our diet, an antioxidant that most Americans need more of according to the AHA.

Polyunsaturated fats also provide omega- 3 and omega- 6 fatty acids, elements the body needs but can’t produce on its own. Walnuts, flaxseed, soybeans, tofu and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are other good sources of this fat.

Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive, canola, sunflower, peanut and sesame oils, olives, avocados, peanut butter, almonds, macadamia nuts and cashews.

Saturated fat is found in high-fat cuts of meat and chicken with skin on it. It’s also in non-skim dairy products like milk, cream and yogurt, as well as ice cream, cheese and butter.       

“One easy way to differentiate between the fats is to remember that saturated fats come from animals and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are plant-based,” said Gordon.

While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that adults 18 and older receive 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fat, they recommend that you limit saturated fat intake to 10 percent of those calories.

Gordon believes that the dietary guidelines on fat consumption are a little of the high side if you want to reduce heart disease risk. She said there is good evidence to support that only 10 percent of daily calories should come from fat.

There is value in a vegetarian diet, said Gordon. “If you eliminate animal fat, you will see cardiac benefit and better weight management.”

Rather than measuring and counting grams to estimate fat consumption, Gordon suggests you have one meal a day with an animal product. If you like eggs, stick to the egg whites, which is where the protein is, she suggests.

Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.

Trans fat is a fat you should banish from your diet. While small amounts of trans fat are found in animal products like milk and meat, about half of the trans fat Americans consume is created during food processing in the form of partially hydrogenated oils, said Gordon.

Partially hydrogenated oils are used by food manufacturers to improve texture, shelf and flavor stability of food. This is a type of fat can be found in commercially-baked cookies and cakes or snack food such as   chips and crackers, margarine and fried fast food.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge people to keep trans fat to a minimum as it contributes to an increase in LDL or “bad cholesterol.” Other foods high in trans fat are frozen pizza, candy bars and hydrogenated cooking oils.

There’s much more awareness among consumers about the dangers of trans fat, Gordon said, but it can still be tricky to spot.   A label can say 0 percent trans fat per serving but if you eat 10 packaged cookies, that .5 gram of trans fat per cookie can quickly add up.

Gordon recommends that consumers read further down the label to the list of ingredients. If the product contains partially hydrogenated oil of any kind, steer clear.

She also says to keep it simple and take food back to the basics. “If it comes in a box, bag, package or from the fryer, you probably shouldn’t consume it every day.”   

And check the number of ingredients listed on a product. If a label has more than five ingredients, leave that item behind and go to the fresh fruit and vegetable section.