There seems to be a common misunderstanding – Don’t eat fat – fat is bad and eating fat makes fat in the body. However, the truth is fat is very important to our body, we should not avoid eating it and best of all it helps food taste great!
In the past it was believed that eating fat created fat within the body and so the general consensus was to stay away from eating it. Today this advice is still going strong, ‘0 percent fat’, ‘non-fat’, ‘low fat’ poducts etc. Even the word fat comes across as unflattering and generally musters up negative emotions of being overweight or having unwanted excess areas of body fat. But, what we found out to be true of fat was not that eating fat creates body fat but in fact it is an overconsumption of calories that causes fat to develop within the body – fat was just the target for a while, same as carbs. In addition to this, we have different types of fat within the body and they are necessary for survival, optimum function and health.
The purpose of this post is tell you that fat is beautiful and, well, very vital to the body and our survival. I will discuss a little bit about fat and its function, the types of fat that are helpful or detrimental to our long term health and where we can find these healthy fats in our diets.
One of the main way we store energy is via fat. Excess calories (energy in) that is consumed from our diet – that being more than we need to survive and fuel daily activities- is stored in the body as fat via adiposities [or fat cells]. These fat cells are necessary, not only do they provide energy and regulate hormones but they also cushion and insulate the body. You will find subcutaneous fat (Visible just under the skin – what we associate as fat) and visceral fat inside the body (fat that surrounds the organs). Visceral fat is not visible from the outside but it is associated with numerous diseases such as type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease and even certain cancers.
Fat is responsible for absorbing some vitamins and helping our food taste great. Yes, fat gets a bad reputation because people tend to avoid it like the plague but we’ve come to discover that it helps promote heart health and body function and it definitely should not be avoided. During digestion fatty acids, the molecules of fat, help keep skin healthy, prevent aging within the body and may promote weight loss by helping to process cholesterol. Ahh, cholesterol, you’ve heard that term before – “it’s bad for you, Scott”, oh contraire my friend. There are varying forms of cholesterol and they are generally put into ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ categories based on either the positive or detrimental effects they have on our heart and arteries, when taken in excess over time. ‘Good’ cholesterol is necessary within the body and consuming a healthy ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats has been found to actually help promote the removal of a high cholesterol build-up (bad cholesterol) within the arteries, should you have high cholesterol. Of course, the opposite is true, too much consumption of ‘bad’ cholesterol can lead to unwanted heart conditions and even coronary heart disease that could eventually to death.
Good and Bad Fats:
What are these? How can we differentiate between good and bad?
It’s hard to say specifically that this type is bad for you and that type is good for you. The body can generally utilise all types of fat for good use. We can, however, associate quantity of fat as being the detrimental factor.
Saturated Fat is the word we are typically told to stay away from. This type of fat is typically solid at room temperature and found in meat, dairy, coconut oil and some oils. Saturated fat is usually labelled on the front of food products (and usually in red, hint hint). Although we may associate saturated fat with high cholesterol (this is true if you are a heavy meat and dairy eater) we also know saturated fat can help with:
- Enhancing your immune system
- Provide energy and structural integrity to the cells of your body
- Enhance liver function
- Coconut oil can act as an anti-microbial and antiviral agent.
Overall consensus: Saturated fat on its own is not bad for us, but an over consumption can lead to high cholesterol [specifically LDL cholesterol – the ‘bad’ type that builds up within your arteries]. For a 2000 kcal diet the American Heart Association recommend we consume around a maximum of 13g of saturated fat or 5-6% of our daily intake. It is necessary for many functions in the body and found predominantly in meat, dairy and a few oils (palm, coconut). You will find saturated fat isn’t fair and it tends to live in the most delicious foods: ‘Foods made with butter, margarine, palm oil or shortening (cakes, cookies, and other desserts) have a lot of saturated fat. Saturated fat can raise your cholesterol. A healthy diet has less than 10% of daily calories from saturated fat’ – UofM Health
Unsaturated Fat is the type of fat that is typically liquid at room temperature and found in mostly oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, eggs and fish. Now here is the tricky part. Unsaturated fats are not one category, they can be split into two sections: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated: Easily recognised and utilised in the body. Diets high in monounsaturated fat have been shown to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol and fat within the blood, thus reducing your risk of Heart disease or stroke. This sounds pretty good, right?
Polyunsaturated: This is like inception for Fat. We now divide polyunsaturated fat into two broad categories – Omega 3 & 6 (there is also 7 &9 from the same family). Polyunsaturated fat and the Omega triplets play a fundamental role in many processes of the metabolism and are crucial for cell functioning within the body.
- Omega 3 is found in your fatty fish, shellfish and plant oils such as soybean, canola and hemp oils.
- Omega 6 is found in your vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin soybean, and corn oils.
Now, if we had a label for ‘bad’ fats I would consider the trans fats as a right naughty boy. Linking fat intake and disease is very multifaceted and not black and white however, evidence has shown that an increase in heavily processed fats (a production creating trans fats) is linked to disease. Cue the psycho shower scene music.
Trans fat is a fat I tend to stay away from, if possible. This is a fat that has been changed by a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases shelf life of fat and generally turns a liquid fat into a solid – changing its structure (i.e. making it hard on our poor arteries). Trans fats are typically vegetable oils turned into a solid, like margarine or shortening, and this fat gives fast food, microwave meals, some crisps, Greggs sausage rolls (no, say it ain’t so), chips, cookies and generally pastry goods a bad name. Trans fats can and will raise your bad cholesterol (LDL), decrease the good cholesterol (HDL) and increase blood lipid (fat) levels in your body if you eat these regularly and in high amounts. They have such an adverse effect that these processed fats affect the body twice as potently as saturated fat. Oh, and saturated fat is also linked to heart disease in excess. Diets high in trans fat increase heart disease risk by 21% and deaths by 28% so, please eat as little trans fats as possible. Heck, the World Health Organisation recommend a total daily intake of less than 1% [1g] of your diet come from trans fats – it makes you wonder why we still produce/use it, right!?
So, “what’s good for me, Scott? Stop the horse play and make it easy for me!”
I hear ya, I really do, and there really isn’t a definitive answer, I’m sorry. What I can provide is general info on fats and their benefits – some foods you may want to consider.
(The YES’) Generally good to have, in moderation:
Benefits: Lower LDL ‘bad cholesterol’ and fat in the blood – potentially reducing coronary heart disease
- Olive Oil
- Nut oils [walnut, peanut etc.]
Polyunsaturated: i.e. Omega 3
Benefits: Oily Fish is the mac-daddy here. Shown to reduce blood tendency to clot, lower total cholesterol and even improve good cholesterol. It’s recommended you consume two portions of fatty fish a week.
- Oily fish
- Cod liver oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Flax oil
- Pasture-reared eggs
(The OK’s) Generally OK, in limited amounts
Polyunsaturated: Omega 6
Benefits: excess amounts are linked to many diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune disease. Best to get an equal balance with Omega 3. You will find a lot of the following in convenient, fast and microwave meals – keep an eye out on for ingredients on your next meal.
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
- Grapeseed oil
- soybean oil
- Pumpkin and sesame seeds.
(The Not so OK’s) Eat in very limited amounts
Trans Fats: Manufactured form of trans fats or partially hydrogenated oil
Benefits: None (flavour, maybe, but really it’s a company saving a quick buck with this cheap product and long preservation quality)
Found in most of the following (generally but not always):
- Baked goods -Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts and crackers.
- Snacks – Potato, corn and tortilla chips often contain trans fat.
- Fried food – Foods that require deep frying — French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken (oil depending)
- Refrigerator dough – Canned biscuits, Cinnamon rolls and frozen pizza crusts.
- Creamer and margarine – Non-dairy coffee creamer and stick margarines. – Mayo Clinic.
In summary I try to eat an equal balance of omega 3 to omega 6, increase my monounsaturated fats and minimise my saturated fats and definitely cut out the trans fats. As a broad figure, I would shoot for around a total of 20-30% of your daily calorie intake to come from fat [this will change depending on what diet group you belong to i.e. Keto is very high in fat, Carnivore also high fat but not as much Keto, Vegan may fluctuate depending on food sources and will tend to lack saturated fats etc. etc. the list goes on]. The main cause for concern is when we over eat consistently and the calories spill over from maintenance and we put weight on– so basically, we eat more than the body needs. When we are in a surplus the body will struggle to utilise fat as an energy source and instead horde fat (what a flawed system, evolution needs to get onto this!). This is when we get a spill over and increase our levels of cholesterol, fatty acids in the blood and start to really put pressure on the heart and our arteries – No Bueno, mi corazón! More bad news, even if we don’t over consume fats as a food source, when we over eat in calories it will turn the rest of the food into stored fat – so your carbs and protein turn to the junk yo mamma didn’t give ya!(oh joy).
Want some recommendations?
Feeling lost? No need to worry! A general rule is try to take in Monounsaturated fats when available along with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Limit the frozen and microwave meals and get the wholesome and natural food that isn’t processed. Some experts say you should choose foods with five or fewer ingredients. While this “five-limit rule” is an awesome rule to follow if you are worried about your fat intake and would like government recommendations check out the NHS website here for more info.
The World Health Organisation recommend reducing saturated fat and industrially-produced trans-fat intake by following the below:
- Steaming or boiling instead of frying when cooking;
- Replacing butter, lard and ghee with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils;
- Eating reduced-fat dairy foods and lean meats, or trimming visible fat from meat; and
- Limiting the consumption of baked and fried foods, and pre-packaged snacks and foods (e.g. doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers) that contain industrially-produced trans-fats. More info here.
For Cooking: the American Heart Association have provided an alphabetical list of common cooking oils that contain more of the “better-for-you” fats and less saturated fat:
Blends or combinations of these oils, often sold under the name “vegetable oil,” and cooking sprays made from these oils are also good choices. Some specialty oils, like avocado, grapeseed, rice bran and sesame, can be healthy choices but may cost a bit more or be harder to find – more info here.
I hope this list has helped! It’s a lot to take in, I know. I can’t take credit for all of the above, research and other websites are heavily referenced. But, what counts is that the information above helps you make healthier decisions and ultimately aids you and your loved ones on to a long and healthy quality of life. If I have missed anything out that you believe is of importance please send me a message or leave a comment or If you liked the post please let me know – I love hearing from you!
P.S. Check the following out: