To start let’s be clear this article isn’t about the fat your body produces it’s about dietary fats — a complicated macronutrient which has had a lot of bad press in the past. But hopefully, this blog will right some of those wrongs and show you that not all fat is bad for you. In fact, it actually has a really important role to play in our health and wellbeing, as long as you eat the right types of fat in moderation.
What is fat?
Fat is one of three macronutrients (along with protein and carbohydrates) which provide energy to the body. Large quantities are required to sustain life hence the term “macro”. Found in both animal and plant foods there are many types of fats which we will discuss in more detail below.
What role does dietary fat play in our body?
Fat first and foremost is a valuable source of energy. But fats play an even more important role than just providing energy. They provide structure to cells, support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and the synthesis of hormones. Fats play a role in brain function, joint health and the production of skin, hair and nails. Fat is as you can see pretty important, but it can also be detrimental to health, in particular, cardiovascular health as we’ll explain below so it’s all about eating the right kinds of fat.
Types of fat
Unhealthy fats to avoid or limit
Saturated fats raise LDL (bad cholesterol) increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer.
Sources of saturated fats
- Animal products such as red meat and processed meats like bacon and sausages
- Baked goods such as cakes and pastries
- Fried foods
- Full-fat dairy produce
Partially hydrogenated trans fats can increase total blood cholesterol, LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels, but lower HDL (good cholesterol). This can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While there are some naturally occurring trans fats, most are produced when liquid fats like vegetable oils are processed to become solid, like margarine. Trans fats are also often used in the production of processed and fast foods.
Sources of trans fats
- Fried and battered foods
- Baked goods such as cakes and pies
- Processed foods and fast foods
Unsaturated fats – healthy fats to include in moderation
Unsaturated fats provide nutrients the body need to do all the functions mentioned previously. They can also help lower levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) which can decrease the risk of heart disease and may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. But while definitely better for our health than saturated and trans fats, unsaturated fats should still be eaten in moderation. This is because all fats contain more than twice as many calories per gram as carbs or protein. Moderation and balance are what I always suggest to my clients but we’ll look at what that means in a moment, first, let’s discuss the different types and sources of healthy fats.
The difference between mono and polyunsaturated fats mainly comes down to their molecular structure but the thing to remember is that both are good for you in moderation and can actually help lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.
- Nuts and seeds including peanuts, cashews and sesame seeds
- Vegetable oils e.g. sesame and olive oil
Polyunsaturated fats – essential fatty acids
Polyunsaturated fats include essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-3 and 6 which you may have heard of before. These fats are considered essential because they can only be obtained from food. EFAs are especially important because they have been shown to help support heart health by lowering cholesterol and triglycerides in the body. They also support brain health and new research suggests they may offer potential protection from Alzheimer’s Disease. Omega-3 can also have an anti-inflammatory effect which is beneficial for anyone suffering from an inflammatory condition.
While omega-6 is fairly abundant in the western diet as it’s found in vegetable oils which are used readily in cooking and processed foods, omega-3 which found in oily fish and nuts and seed is more frequently deficient in modern diets, particularly if someone is vegetarian or vegan. So supplementing is an option if necessary.
- Oily fish, in particular sardines, salmon, mackerel, anchovies and herring
- Nuts and seeds, in particular flax and chia, pine nuts and walnuts – easy way to remember this one is a walnut looks like a brain so contains omega-3 to support brain health.
- Cooking oils including corn and sunflower oil
A note on coconut oil and butter
It wouldn’t be an article about fats if I didn’t touch on the controversial subjects of coconut oil and butter.
Often touted as a ‘superfood’ and appearing as part of many healthy recipes and products, coconut oil is technically a saturated fat. I told you fat was a complicated subject!
So while technically a saturated fat, coconut oil or more specifically the lauric acid which is the fat contained in most supermarket coconut oil, doesn’t appear to have the same damaging effects on the body as saturated fats from animal sources. As well as raising LDL or bad cholesterol it can also help increase levels of HDL or good cholesterol providing a protective benefit to heart health, but again only if used in moderation.
Personally I use coconut oil to cook with – on occasion in a dessert or to sauté onions and garlic for a dish because it has a higher smoking point than most vegetable oils. That means it’s more stable and less likely to become potentially carcinogenic when heated. Plus it’s better than highly processed and modified margarine in my opinion. But just because a cake is made with coconut oil instead of margarine does not make it ‘healthy’ – it should still be eaten in moderation.
And as for butter, again while technically a saturated fat in my view butter is better than margarine because the fats are natural. They have not been modified in a factory to behave in a certain way. Butter also contains butyric acid which helps support gut health so it has some beneficial benefits for wellbeing but again, only if enjoyed in moderation. Sorry!
How to incorporate fats into your diet in a healthy way
Overall here are my guidelines for using fats to benefit your health on a daily basis:
- Replace margarine with butter but keep amounts moderate – 1-2 tsp per serving 2-3 servings a week.
- Limit red meat to once a week or less.
- Use olive oil in salad dressings or to cook food at low temperatures e.g. roasting vegetables in the oven.
- Use coconut oil in moderation when cooking at high temperatures e.g. sautéing or stir-frying vegetables on the hob.
- Add 1-2 portions of healthy fats to your daily diet e.g. 1/2 an avocado with eggs for breakfast, 1 salmon fillet for dinner or 8-10 / 1-2 tbsp of nuts and seeds as a snack.
- Keep fried foods and baked goods to a minimum but when you do have them, enjoy them guilt-free because a little of what you fancy isn’t going to do you any harm as long as most of what you consume is nutritious.
Please note these are general guidelines and people with specific health conditions should speak to a professional to discuss their specific need. If you would like to discuss your specific needs with me please book a free 15-minutes discovery call with me.