The subject of fats still causes massive confusion. People are unsure whether to avoid or include fats in their diet, and if they should include them, which ones are the right ones; and how much should they eat? And then there’s the subject of cholesterol … and what about trans fats? And soon enough, it seems like the easiest thing to do is avoid them altogether. Sound familiar?
In response to this overwhelming confusion, we’ve put together a quick summary of everything you need to know about fats and nothing else. Avoiding fats altogether can have disastrous effects on your health so instead we’ll help you navigate your way through the world of nuts, seeds and oily fish with a calm and clear head.
Ready to embrace the world of fats? Read on…
Why you need to eat fats
Fats are an absolutely crucial part of your diet, yet Western society still seems to be giving them a wide berth - supermarket shelves are piled high with zero fat yoghurts and pretend-butter packed with anything but real fat. Unfortunately, what these products don’t advertise is that fat phobia comes with a whole host of health problems, not least those related to mood and cognitive function. The brain is composed of 60% fat and this needs to be replenished through your diet. Fats also help to protect your organs from damage, act as insulation to keep you warm, help nerve cells to pass messages and can even help you to lose weight. People who are fat deficient tend to have dry, cracked skin, feel miserable and could be at higher risk of developing cognitive and cardiovascular health problems as they age.
Here’s some health problems / symptoms that may be associated with a deficiency or imbalance of healthy fats:
Hair, Skin & Nails
Dry, rough skin, raised red bumps on the backs of arms (Keratinosis pilaris)
Poor hair condition, loss of hair, dandruff
Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis
Frequent infections, poor wound healing, auto-immune problems
Poor memory, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease
Behavioural problems, hyperactivity
Polycystic ovaries, endometriosis
Anxiety, tension, depression / mood fluctuations
Blood Sugar Imbalances
Weight gain, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes
Fat Soluble Vitamin Deficiencies
Vitamins A, D, E & K
Suddenly that fat-free yoghurt doesn’t look quite so appealing does it!
Those scientific-sounding words explained!
Clearly there are some fats that you’d be best placed not to eat too much of, and there’s others that almost everyone needs to eat more of. Here’s a quick overview of all of them, where you can find them in your diet and whether or not you should be eating them. We’ve used the scientific terms since this is how you’ll see them on a food label.
Where do you find them? – Meat (beef, poultry, pork, sausages etc.), lard, dairy products (cheese, milk, cream, butter, yoghurt), cocoa butter (chocolate), tropical fats such as palm oil (processed foods) and coconut oil.
Why do you need them? To provide insulation around your organs and under your skin to keep you warm and absorb shock. Saturated fats also provide energy, calories and heat.
Do I need to eat them? Yes – up to a maximum of about 24g daily for an average adult – the equivalent of 3 rashers of bacon, an ounce of dark chocolate and a teaspoon of butter. However most people eat far more than the recommended maximum amount per day and need to reduce rather than increase their intake.
Unsaturated & polyunsaturated fats
Where do you find them? – Olive oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, sesame seed oil, blackcurrant seed oil, evening primrose oil, borage seed oil, algae, soybean oil, hemp seed oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts & seeds
Why do you need them? Unsaturated and particularly polyunsaturated fats are highly beneficial to health yet often missing from a typical Western diet. There are many different types of these fats, each having their own special function. EPA & DHA are special omega-3 polyunsaturated fats found in high amounts in oily fish, nuts and seeds. They are beneficial to cardiovascular health, mood, cognitive function, learning and development, joint health and more. GLA is another type of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat found in high amounts in evening primrose, borage seed and blackcurrant seed oil – it is particularly beneficial for the skin and is often recommended for eczema sufferers. GLA is also widely used to alleviate the symptoms of PMS.
Do I need to eat them? Yes absolutely. Most people don’t eat anywhere near enough of these types of fats. See article on easy ways to increase your intake. It is also recommended that most people supplement with a high quality pure and stable fish oil supplement to ensure optimal daily intake. You can also supplement your diet with extra GLA in the form of borage seed oil.
Did you know?
An easy way to tell the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats – fats that contain mostly unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (olive oil, flaxseed oil), whereas saturated fats (butter, lard) are solid at room temperature
Where do you find them? – Margarines, shortenings, processed foods, convenience and fast foods and even some oils. Often labelled as ‘hydrogenated’.
Why do you need them? You don’t need trans fats in your diet. In fact they are generally considered to be harmful to your health. Trans fats are basically fats which have been chemically modified to enhance the flavour / texture of some foods. They are often used to stiffen oils – for example to make food products such as pretend butter and margarine spreads. Trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular health problems and a possible involvement in some cancers. Trans fats also interfere with vital functions of essential and other highly unsaturated fats.
Do I need to eat them? No – absolutely not – trans fats are best avoided.
Where do you find it? – Cholesterol can be made in our bodies or it can come from foods. Only foods from animal sources contain cholesterol – it is found in eggs, meat, dairy products and shellfish.
Why do you need it? Our bodies make steroid hormones from cholesterol: oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and adrenal corticosteroid hormones. Cholesterol is also used to make bile acids and vitamin D and is secreted by glands into our skin to protect against dehydration and cracking. It also used as an antioxidant.
Do I need to eat it? No – cholesterol is vital for health, but you do not need to obtain it from foods since your body can make it. However if you consume cholesterol through food your body will simply make less. Cholesterol is unique in that our bodies cannot break it down so it is important to eat plenty of fibre-containing foods such as oats to aid its elimination and prevent an unhealthy build up. If there is a lack of dietary fibre, 94% of cholesterol and bile acids will be reabsorbed and recycyled, hence why low fibre diets increase blood cholesterol levels.
Did you know?
Adding some beneficial unsaturated fats into your diet will actually help to increase your metabolism and support fat loss. A 2009 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that participants who consumed the most unsaturated fatty acids had lower body mass indexes and less abdominal fat than those who consumed the least. If you are trying to lose weight you need to make sure you are eating optimal amounts of beneficial unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds and oily fish and reduce your intake of saturated fats. It might sound crazy but fats really do help to burn fat! Fat also helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer which helps to reduce cravings for unhealthy foods. See this article for suggested portion sizes.
Feed your body with healthy fats…
Fat is essential to life and is an integral part of any healthy balanced diet. It’s the fast foods and the refined, processed stuff that gives fat a bad name. Stick to the real, honest beneficial fats found in plentiful supply in nutritious foods such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado and leafy greens and you won’t go too far wrong. As well as feeding your brain and your skin, your joints, cardiovascular health, mood and much more will benefit too. Spoonful of fish oil anyone?!