When it comes to good and bad foods, it seems there’s something we’ve always been able to unite on; fats are bad. For years, we’ve been encouraged to ditch the fat from our diets, switching high-fat foods for either natural or artificial low-fat replacements.
However, if you thought cutting out high fat foods was the key to health and longevity, you might be in for a shock. Recent studies have shown that our current attitudes to fat are not working to make us any healthier, and may even be more harmful than helpful. Whilst it is true that overconsumption of certain fats can result in high cholesterol, raised blood pressure, and heart disease, a diet containing no fat can have equally adverse health effects.
A large part of our issues with fat stem from a belief that all fat is the same; something that is simply not true. There are many different types of fat, some of which are more useful to the human body than others, and as such it’s important that the fats we’re eating are the right fats. To help you identify the good from the bad, and promote a balanced approach, we’ve put together some of the basic facts about fat.
Why do we need fat?
Alongside carbohydrates and protein, fat is defined as one of the three essential macronutrientsneeded by the body to provide energy. If carbohydrates can be classed as the body’s primary source of energy, fats can be classified as a largely secondary source. As such, they’re mostly an auxiliary source of energy, being stored in the body and used up when no energy from carbohydrates is available.
As well as being an energy store, fat also temporarily stores toxins until they can be passed out of the body. It also plays an essential part in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins are fat soluble, meaning that without it they would not be able to be absorbed into the body.
What types of fat are there?
There are many different types, each with their own individual properties, culinary uses, and health effects.
These types of fats are mainly found in foods that derive from animal sources, but less frequently occur in some plant based foods. Saturated fats can be identified easily, as they are solid when at room temperature. Foods and ingredients high in saturated fats include:
• Red meat
• Processed meats
• Coconut oil
• Palm oil
Although linked to high levels of cholesterol, raised blood pressure, and a heightened risk of heart disease, it’s still important to include some saturated fat in a balanced diet. Whilst saturated fats have often been blanketed as unhealthy, < href=”http://greatist.com/health/saturated-fat-healthy”>recent research has challenged this assumption, claiming that the negative health effects of saturated fat have been overstated. Although these claims have been met with controversy, it’s true that the body does need some saturated fat for vital functions; sat-fats play a part in liver health, immune system function, and hormone regulation.
Unsaturated fats are perhaps the most beneficial source of fat in a diet, frequently being viewed as a healthier alternative to saturated fats. As such, unsaturated fats are commonly referred to as “good fats”, and it’s recommended that most of the fat we consume is unsaturated. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and most cooking oils we use are unsaturated. Good sources include:
• Olive oil (and olive oil spread)
• Sunflower oil (and sunflower oil spread)
• Rapeseed oil
• Peanut oil
• Avocados/Avocado oil
Unsaturated fats are needed as part of a balanced diet in order to promote blood clotting, muscle movement, and prevent inflammation. For this reason, it’s suggested that more unsaturated fats be included in a diet than saturated fats. Cold pressed oils such as olive and avocado oils are much less processed than sunflower, rapeseed, canola, and peanut oil are more suited to use in cooking such as light stir frying. Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated fat present in fish and certain nuts, have also been linked to promoting good cholesterol and the prevention of heart disease as well as reducing pain and inflammation.
Trans Fats/ Hydrogenated Fats
Trans-fats are a type of saturated fat, found in small amounts naturally in dairy products and some red meats. However, most trans-fat in the average diet is artificial, created by the hardening of liquid fats into solid fats. This process is called hydrogenation, and as such trans-fats are often referred to as hydrogenated fats. These are commonly found in:
• Artificial vegetable oils
• Processed biscuits and cakes
• Frozen ready meals
• Processed meats
Hydrogenated fats are considered highly unhealthy, and have been linked as a potential cause of diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, liver dysfunction, and infertility. Whilst at one point foods such as margarine were considered a healthier alternative, it’s now understood that foods containing natural saturated fats are in fact more beneficial to a diet. Regulations were introduced to phase out the use of hydrogenated fats in 2010, and as such many food producers and retailers have ceased to use the fat as an ingredient. Although at one point margarine was one of the main offenders, in the UK all margarines are now hydrogenated fat free, instead containing olive and vegetable oils.
How much fat should I eat?
The recommended daily allowance of fat per day is 70g, as part of a 2000 calorie per day diet. Within this allowance, saturated fat should be limited to around 20g a day. Whilst following these exact guidelines to a tee on a day to day basis is unreasonable, trying to eat less foods containing saturated fats and more unsaturated fats is always a good idea. This could simply mean replacing some portions of red meat with fish or chicken, and using nut or vegetable oils in place of butter for light frying. Also, as most food packaging now displays fat content per weight recommended portion, keeping a rough track of your fat intake is easy.