Many people believe that fat is unhealthy and that eating it will make them fat, so it’s often the first macronutrient people cut out when trying to get lean. This is a common mistake, because not all fats are bad; in fact, some are essential to the body and must be obtained from your diet.
WHY ARE FATS IMPORTANT?
Fats have several important roles in the body, including:
• A small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids such as omega-3 – “essential” because the body can’t make them itself.
• Fat helps the body absorb vitamins A, D and E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they can only be absorbed with the help of fats.
• All types of fat are high in energy. A gram of fat, whether saturated or unsaturated, provides 9kcal (37kJ) of energy compared with 4kcal (17kJ) for carbohydrate and protein.
• Protection of your organs, nerves and tissues, and helping to regulate body temperature
• Fats are involved in the production of essential hormones in the body
• Maintenance of healthy skin, hair, and nails
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF FAT?
The main types of fat found in food are saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Most fats and oils contain both saturated and unsaturated fats in different proportions. As part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on foods and drinks high in saturated fats and trans fats and replace some of them with unsaturated fats
Saturated fats were wrongly demonized in the 1950s because of their association with increased bad cholesterol and coronary heart disease. For years, we were told to replace these saturated fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils, margarines and low-fat products. New research, however, suggests that saturated fats actually increase good cholesterol and are beneficial for the heart (in limited amounts)
Saturated fats are found in many foods, both sweet and savoury. Most of them come from animal sources, including meat and dairy products, as well as some plant foods such as palm oil.
Foods high in saturated fats include:
• fatty cuts of meat
• meat products, including sausages and pies
• butter, ghee and lard
• cheese, especially hard cheese
• cream, soured cream and ice cream
• some savoury snacks and chocolate confectionery
• biscuits, cakes and pastries
• palm oil
• coconut oil and cream
Saturated fat guidelines
Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fats. The population on average gets 12.6% of their energy (kJ/kcal) from saturated fats, which is slightly above the 11% maximum recommended by the government.
• The average man should aim to have no more than 30g of saturated fat a day.
• The average woman should aim to have no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.
• Children should have less.
Monounsaturated fats, found in things such as extra virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts, are also great for increasing good cholesterol. This is why a handful of nuts, seeds or olives and half an avocado make a perfect snack. Extra virgin olive oil is best used raw in salad dressings. Unlike sugary cereal bars or chocolate, these snacks will give you sustained energy and keep your blood-sugar levels stable.
Polyunsaturated fats can be found in things such as oily fish like salmon and mackerel and are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are considered an EFA (essential fatty acid) because they cannot be synthesized in the body, and so they must be obtained from the diet. Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
TIPS ON BUYING LOWER FAT PRODUCTS
There are labelling guidelines set by the European Union to help you work out whether or not a food is high in fat and saturated fat.
• high fat – more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
• low fat – 3g of fat or less per 100g, or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids
• fat-free – 0.5g of fat or less per 100g or 100ml Saturated fat
• high in sat fat – more than 5g of saturates per 100g
• low in sat fat – 1.5g of saturates or less per 100g or 0.75g per 100ml for liquids
• sat fat-free – 0.1g of saturates per 100g or 100ml
‘WHAT LOWER FAT LABELS MEAN
For a product to be labelled lower fat, reduced fat, lite or light, it has to contain at least 30% less fat than a similar product. But if the type of food in question is high in fat in the first place, the lower-fat version may also still be high in fat (17.5g or more of fat per 100g). For example, a lower-fat mayonnaise is 30% lower in fat than the standard version, but is still high in fat. These foods also aren’t necessarily low in calories. Sometimes the fat is replaced with sugar and may end up with a similar energy content. To be sure of the fat content and the energy content, remember to check the nutrition label on the packet.
GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR CHOOSING HEALTHY FATS
If you are concerned about your weight or overall health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing trans fats and saturated fats from fried or processed foods with good fats, such as fish, olive oil, nuts, avocados, and high-quality dairy.
• Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats or any kind of “partially hydrogenated” oil. Avoiding commercially-baked goods, margarines, and limiting fast food goes a long way to cutting out this dangerous fat from your diet.
• Reduce or eliminate fried food
• Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish and fish oil, walnuts, flax seeds, and flaxseed oil. Try adding ground flaxseed meal to your breakfast cereal or instigating a “fish Friday.”
• Choose your oils carefully. Cold-pressed, organic oils retain all the nutrients that are burned away in industrially manufactured oils, many of which can become toxic when heated.
There are many opinions and few absolutes in the nutrition world. For most of us, it’s our overall dietary pattern that is more important than specific foods. What we do know for sure is that the typical Western diet—filled with fried, processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks—is leading to higher rates of obesity and illness. Eating less manufactured and industrially-processed food and more “real,” natural food—fresh from the ground, the ocean, or small, local farms—is a sound place to start for all your food choices, including dietary fats