Fat doesn't make you fat!
People are scared of “fat” – we think that eating too much fat makes you fat, but eating the right kind of fat is essential for optimum health. Eating essential fats is associated with a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, eczema, depression and heart disease. Fats are essential nutrients, and are used in many important functions in the body. For example, the brain is 60% fat and every single cell in our body is surrounded by a membrane which is made from fatty acids. Fat keeps us warm by forming an insulating layer between our organs and our skin. It gives us energy and is used to make many of our hormones and signalling molecules, which control many biological reactions in our cells. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble and need to be consumed with some fat for maximum absorption. So if you are not getting the correct amount of the right fats, then you risk not reaching your full potential for feeling healthy.
There are three different chemical forms of fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Most foods that contain fats have different amounts of all three types, for example, olive oil contains mainly monounsaturated fats, and butter contains mainly saturated fats. Generally, saturated fats are solid at room temperature and tend to come from animal sources. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature and are from plant sources.
Saturated fats are found in many animal products, such as red meat, poultry, and dairy. Saturated fats for cooking include butter, animal fat and coconut oil – they are more stable at high temperatures than the other types of fat but are best used in small quantities. It is recommended that saturated fats form no more than 11% of our daily dietary intake.
Monounsaturated fats should make up about 13% of our daily dietary intake and are found in nuts, seeds, avocados and many plant-based oils, like olive oil, sesame oil and sunflower oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in many of the plant-based oils (e.g. sunflower, rapeseed, nut oils) which we use. The problem with these oils is that they are unstable at high temperatures and get converted to trans fats (see below), which is why they are best used for low temperature cooking and in salad dressings.
There are several types of polyunsaturated fats – two which are particularly mentioned in the scientific literature are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are often known as essential fatty acids, because our bodies cannot make them and we need to get them from our food. It is recommended that we have equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, however in the developed world our diets are often higher in omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like oily fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.
There is another type of fat called trans-fats. These occur naturally in some animal foods, but are also made by the food industry when oils are processed into margarines and spreads, and when polyunsaturated oils, such as sunflower oil are heated to very high temperatures, for example, in deep-frying. Foods containing these are often labelled as containing hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats, and are best kept to a minimum, as these fats have detrimental effects on health.
Here are some tips for ensuring that you are getting the correct amounts of the right fats:
· Use saturated cooking fats like butter, animal fats and coconut oil for high temperature cooking, but in small quantities.
· Use oils such as olive oil and rapeseed oil for lower temperature cooking and for drizzling on salads and vegetables.
· Use cooking methods such as grilling, steaming, sautéing and baking instead of frying.
· Increase foods containing healthy fats. Examples include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardine, herring), nuts, seeds, avocados. Nuts are a great snack and seeds can be added to yogurt, crumble, porridge, salads and soups.
· Reduce intake of processed foods that contain lots of margarine, e.g. cakes and biscuits.
· Reduce intake of fried snacks, such as crisps and pretzels.