We all eat a range of different fats from our foods, and we all need some fat in our diet. For example, some fats are essential nutrients that our bodies need but cannot produce itself, so we have to consume them from our foods. So some fats are healthier for you than others. When we look at the fat in our diet to work out what is best for our health, it may not only be the amount of fat we eat that we need to worry about, but rather the types of fat we are eating.
You may have heard of the term ‘triglycerides’, which is just another name for 95 percent of the fat we eat in our diet. This fat circulates in our blood stream to be used as fuel by our bodies. If you eat too much however, you increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Reducing your intake of saturated fat (found in animal foods, some processed foods and commercial baked products) and switching to healthier fats like those in oily fish, avocados and nuts is a healthy move.
Fat is a valuable source of energy and it also helps your body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. The fat you get from food is also your only source of the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 which are vital for cell formation, particularly in your nervous system.
The main types of fat are:
Saturated fats are saturated because each fat molecule is completely covered in hydrogen atoms. Too much saturated fat may increase your levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol which in turn increases your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are not essential in our diet so the less we eat of it the better.
Meat, meat products, dairy products, coconut oil and palm oil contain the greatest amount of saturated fat. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid, though there are exceptions. Many processed foods, from cakes, biscuits and pastries to full-fat dairy products to takeaway foods contain saturated fats.
Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat that can be found naturally in some foods, but can also be made by processing or superheating oils or fats during food production. Trans fats are worse than saturated fat - as well as raising LDL cholesterol, they also lower 'good' HDL cholesterol. With every two percent of energy you consume a day as trans fat - about the amount in a medium-sized serve of french fries - you increase your risk of coronary heart disease by 23 percent!
Naturally-occurring trans fats are in animal products such as butter, cheese and meat. Manufactured or artificial trans fats formed during food processing can be found in baked products due to the margarine or shortening used, and they're also in deep-fried foods.
Polyunsaturated fats are generally beneficial to health and help lower cholesterol. They include omega-3 fats found in oily fish and omega-6 fats found in seeds such as sunflower and safflower. They help prevent heart disease by lowering your blood cholesterol level. Omega-3 fats may also help reduce symptoms of arthritis. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats include cooking oils made from seeds such as sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, soybean, maize, sesame and grape seed.
Good sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, trout, herring and sardines. Flax seeds (linseed) and their oils also contain omega-3 fats (although flaxseed/linseed oil is unsuitable for cooking). Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats include cooking oils made from seeds such as sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, soybean, maize, sesame and grape seed.
Monounsaturated fats are healthy fats which also help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts and avocados.
Research shows that no more than 30 per cent of your kilojoules should come from fat. Because all fat is high in kilojoules, eating it in moderation helps control your body weight.
By reducing the amount of fat you eat, and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, you can also reduce the risk of developing heart disease. A review carried out by Hooper et al looked at 27 studies on the effect that reducing fats in the diet had on heart disease. The review concluded that continuing this kind of diet for at least two years increased heart health, with the benefit shown in those who already had heart disease as well as those who didn’t.
As such, saturated fats should contribute no more than seven percent of your total daily energy, and trans fat should account for less than one percent.
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Last published 31 October 2010