Updated: May 26, 2020
Over the years, fats have received a bad rep- due to misinformation and dodgy media reports. Following a low-fat diet became a popular weight loss strategy, and fats were grouped together and blamed for causing heart disease and a range of other health conditions. However a number of studies have shown that diets that are high in protein and fat can have a number of positive impacts on our health- from improved hormonal functioning, heart health and help to bring about weight loss.
The truth is that fats have been heavily misunderstood and it’s time we rethink limiting them in our diets. Don’t get us wrong, not all fats are required in large quantities, but as with everything, it’s all about finding the balance- particularly in your intake of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.
Lets’ break this down :
Why do we need fats in our diet?
Fats are a concentrated energy source, they contain essential fatty acids and they are required for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E & K), to support cell growth, and for the production of hormones ( to name a few).
What are the different types of fats?
There are two main types of fat found in foods; saturated and unsaturated(including polyunsaturated) fatty acids, however most fats and oils contain both saturated and unsaturated fats in different proportions. The degree of saturation is important to note, as the more saturated a fat is, the less vulnerable it is to damage when exposed to heat. Essentially, saturated fats are stable, whereas unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are more susceptible to damage when exposed to heat. The reason this is relevant is because you should aim to avoid damaged fats as they can cause oxidative damage once inside your body and this has been linked to a number of health conditions.
Therefore choose your cooking oil/fat based on the temperature (level of heat) that you will expose it to- for example keep your extra virgin olive oil- which is an unsaturated fat- for drizzling on salads and instead use ghee, butter and coconut oil for cooking with.
Saturated fats are found in animal sources such as butter, meat, cheese, creams as well as in certain plant sources including coconut oil and palm oil. Foods high in saturated fats include: butter, hard cheese, some meat (fatty beef, poultry with skin, pork, processed meats, cold cuts, bacon), biscuits, cakes, pizza, fast food etc.
Unsaturated fats are either either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated and are found primarily in oils from plant and fish. Monounsaturated fats are good for your heart as they maintain HDL levels (good cholesterol) and lower LDL levels (bad cholesterol).
Sources of monounsaturated fats:
Certain nuts like almonds, peanuts, cashew nuts, brazil nuts, walnuts
Avocados, olive oil, rapeseed oil, nut oils, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
Polyunsaturated fats have also been found to lower LDL levels. There are two main types: omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.
Sources of omega-3 include:
Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and shrimp
Seaweed and algae
Seeds: hemp, chia, flax
Omega-6 is primarily found in plant oils, sources include:
Rapeseed oil, safflower and soybean oil
Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts
It’s important to also identify fats that are not essential and not good for the body. Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been processed and hence their profile is more like that of saturated fats. Trans fats have been known to increase LDL levels and reduce HDL levels. Trans fats are found frequently in packaged foods, butter and in fast-food and should be avoided. Products can be listed as ‘zero trans fat’ if they contain between 0–0.5gm of trans fat per serving. They may also be listed on the ingredient list as partially hydrogenated oils. Cookies, crackers, doughnuts, muffins and cakes are a few examples of foods that may contain these trans fats.
What are the fats that we need to incorporate into our diet?
The human body can make a majority of the fats that it needs from other fats and from other components. However this isn’t true for omega-3 fatty acids, as the body can’t make them and hence they are termed as essential fats. Hence one should focus on getting this through the diet. There are three main omega-3s:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in fish.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in nuts, vegetable oils, animal fat (grass-fed animals) and flaxseeds.
Most practitioners recommend getting a minimum of 250–500mg of EPA and DHA every day. Good sources include fatty fish, algae, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds and eggs.
Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, however consuming too much omega-6 could have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body. Hence its important to consume omega-6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the ratio of 4:1, meaning we need to be careful to limit the amount of soybean and safflower oil we consume- however this type of oil is often used in processed and packaged foods, meaning it can be hiding! We also need to consciously choose foods high in Omega 3.
How to identify foods that are high or low in fats?
High fat foods: foods that contain more than 17.5gm of fat/100gm
Low fat foods: foods that contain 3gm or less of fat/100gm
Now when it comes to saturated fats, foods that contain more than 5gm of saturates/100gm is considered to have a high content. Whereas foods that contain 1.5gm or less/100gm is considered to be low in saturates.
Our focus should not be on cutting down our fat intake, but instead we need to think about the type of fat that we are consuming.
How much fat do we need?
Now that we’ve established that not all fat is bad for us, let’s look into the right quantities of these healthy fats that can help improve our health. Most organisations recommend that fats should contribute 30–35% of your daily intake. (Refer to our previous post). Within this however, saturated fats should form not more than 11% and trans fats not more than 2% of your daily caloric intake. The aim is to replace a percentage of the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats.
Getting the right balance of fats in your diet:
Nuts and seeds are a great way to introduce healthy fats in your diet. In fact, regular consumption of healthy fats from nuts has been associated with lower levels of LDL and total cholesterol. Try and incorporate a handful of nuts and seeds (30gm) in your day. You can add them to your meals, porridge, salads, yogurt or simply eat them plain. Remember to only choose unsalted, unsweetened, dry roasted and unflavoured varieties.
2. Use healthier cooking oil.Opt for cold pressed unrefined oils as the conventional methods (solvent extraction and refining) process of extracting oils strip the oil of its natural antioxidants, vitamins and even the flavour. Cold pressed oils retain their nutritional value and are naturally cholesterol free and contain natural antioxidants.
Good oil practices:
Buy oil sold in glass bottles not plastic
Buy organic, cold-pressed refined oils
Store your oils in a cool, dark place
3. Incorporate a good source of omega-3 fat into your daily diet.Walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and avocados are good sources of omega-3 that can easily be added to your meals/snacks. Swap regular butter for smashed avocados or guacamole and ditch store-bought dressings for olive oil based vinaigrettes
4. Avoid low-fat products and opt for whole, full-fat ingredients: The bottom line is that you need to incorporate healthy fats into your diet and you should be wary of ‘low-fat’ products, because ironically, a number of ‘low-fat’ products contain higher amounts of sugar and are rarely healthier. This is done to enhance the taste as the reduction of fat tends to make products less palatable.
5. Snack of fat: Snacks are an easy way to add healthy fats to your diet. Good options are nuts, seeds, hard-boiled eggs, guacamole etc. The added benefit of having a snack with fat is that you wont need large quantities to feel satiated. A handful of nuts or a hard-boiled egg will help with those hunger pangs.
Final Thoughts: Aim to get a mix of healthy fats from unprocessed and whole, good quality foods. Good sources include fish, nuts, seeds, seaweed, grass-fed and free range animals/eggs, coconut, avocado and cacao nibs. Avoid intake of highly refined oils and products that contain unhealthy fats. Don’t worry too much about the quantities; you can supplement with fish oil or algae oily daily. You can use your thumb to determine your fat portions; eat an entire thumb full of fat-dense foods at each meal.