We are constantly being told that fat is to blame for the obesity epidemic, and supermarket shelves are packed with fat-free products, advertised as a ‘healthy’ choice. This plays on the common misconception that all fats, especially saturated fats are bad for you.
BUT fat is in fact vital for good health and could help strengthen your heart and immune system.Yes, even saturated fat!
Nutritionally, fat provides us with energy, vitamins A, D, E and K, and essential fatty acids that we need to absorb from our diet. So it’s important to know which fats are healthy, which ones should be avoided, and how much is enough.
Why We Need Fat
Fat is the second most abundant substance in the body. It plays a key role in many of our bodily functions.
In fact, every cell in our body has an outer layer of fat which not only provides protection, but also allows for the efficient transportation of nutrients and the removal of waste out through the cell membranes.
Additionally, around 60% of the dry weight of the brain is composed of fats, and without it communication of thoughts, feelings and reactions will be impaired.
Fat also provides a cushion around organs and joints and enhances nerve transmission.
So What Types of Fat are ‘Good?’
Fats are divided into unsaturated and saturated types depending on their molecular make-up.
Unsaturated fats, sometimes called the ‘good’ fats, when consumed in moderation, have one or more double-bonds inside their fatty acid chain and are usually found as a liquid at room temperature. They promote cell function and could help lower LDL cholesterol levels, also known as bad cholesterol, which can stick to artery walls and increase the risk of heart disease and strokes.
The two different types of unsaturated fats are polyunsaturated (PUFA) and monounsaturated (MUFA).
Polyunsaturated fats include most seeds and nuts and their oils and butters, oily fish, soya beans and tofu.
Monounsaturated fats includes olives, avocados, peanuts and their oil, beans, lentils, chickpeas, eggs and green leafy vegetables.
Omega 3 unsaturated fats are essential short and long-chain fatty acids, particularly important for heart health, which cannot be made in the body and need to be sourced through diet. Oily fish like salmon and tuna are rich sources of omega 3, as are walnuts and soy bean oils. A study published by the Osteoarthritis and Cartilage Journal showed omega 3 could also help alleviate symptoms of osteoarthritis.
The Saturated Fat Myth
It is commonly touted that all saturated fats such as butter are bad, and have the potential to raise your LDL cholesterol levels and cause heart attacks if consumed in excess, but this is not the case.
In fact, an important editorial written by in the British Medical Journal says it’s time to bust the myth that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease.
Reducing saturated fat intake reduces large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles. But it’s the small, dense (type B) particles that are implicated in heart disease, (these are found in carbohydrates such as sugar- more on this in a future article).
Indeed, recent studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective.
So What Are ‘Bad’ Fats?’
Trans fats – which are vegetable oils processed (fully or partially hydrogenated) to make them harder – are the real culprits for raising LDL cholesterol, encouraging obesity and heart disease. Cakes, pastries, chocolate, biscuits, chips, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products and fried takeaway foods are the most commonly consumed sources of these ‘bad’ fats.
These hydrogenated fats and semi-hydrogenated fats offer little nutritional benefit and, when consumed regularly, interfere with the metabolism of ‘good fats’, reducing their effectiveness and increasing the risk of inflammation within the body
Tips to Eat the Right Fats
Here are a few tips to help you consume the right types of fats in your diet:
- Use organic butter, preferably made from grass-fed milk instead of margarines and vegetable oil spreads.
- Use coconut oil or ghee for cooking. Coconut oil is far superior to any other cooking oil and is loaded with health benefits.
- Use olive oil COLD, drizzled over salad or fish, for example. It is not an ideal cooking oil as it is easily damaged by heat.
- Eat raw fats, such as those found in avocados, raw dairy products, and olive oil, and also take a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fat.
- Avoid fast food. Most fast foods contain high levels of saturated fats to lengthen their shelf life and make them cheaper to produce. Try to avoid ready meals and opt for healthier options such as fresh fish or green vegetables.