Is fat healthy? Fat has been subjected to so much bad press over the last few decades that it now has a reputation that is difficult to shift.
Clients are always telling me that they have a healthy diet because they avoid fat, consuming low fat or fat free options.
So is it justified that fat regarded as the enemy?
3 Types Of Fat
3 main fats exist naturally in food including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fat.
Is Saturated Fat Good For You?
Saturated fat is very stable due to its molecular composition. It is usually found to be solid at room temperature although some oils such as palm oil are saturated. Excessive consumption of saturated fat will add an awful lot of calories to your diet but as far as fats are concerned it is not as unhealthy as many people state.
The danger of getting fat from excess calorie consumption is more real as obesity related morbidity becomes a real population epidemic. Due to the stable nature of saturated fat it does not perish or go putrid easily and is good for cooking with.
Butter is an example of a saturated fat that has a robust shelf life and does not perish if heated. If left out of the fridge butter will darken on the edges slightly but will remain edible.
Monounsaturated Fat, That’s Good For You. Right?
Monounsaturated fat is still quite stable and a versatile cooking fat if only heated gently.
Being less stable than saturated fat it will perish if heated excessively, if left in sunlight or allowed to oxidise in the open air.
Olive oil is an example of monounsaturated fat. This is well regarded to have health giving properties and being slightly unstable it is easy to convert into energy compared to saturated fat.
Again however it is still energy dense – something to be aware of if aiming for a calorie deficit or calorie counting.
Polyunsaturated Fat – That’s In ‘Health’ Foods… It Must Be Okay
Polyunsaturated fat is highly unstable and reactive. It perishes quickly if left in sunlight or heated – even gently.
Do not cook with polyunsaturated fat such as sunflower oil as it turns into trans fats on heating which are very bad for you.
As with monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat is great used raw on salads. Due to the reactive nature of polyunsaturated fats they are easily converted into energy by the body and unless eaten in excess will unlikely cause weight gain.
Best fat for health – Omega 3
As suggested above the best fats for their health-giving properties are poly and monounsaturated fats.
These are a good source of essential fatty acids (EFA) and if unheated are good for you.
Fish oils are also very good for you, and have been linked to many health benefits including:
- Prostaglandins that reducing swelling
- Heart health
- Brain and mental health
- Hair, skin and eye health
- Aiding weight loss
- Joint health
When purchasing fish oils however be aware of the following common advertising. Omega 9 as a supplement is not necessary as is not an EFA and is synthesised by the body.
Omega 6 is usually found in excess in western diets. This is best consumed in a 1:1 or 2:1 omega 6: omega 3 ratio. Commonly found in ratios of 10:1 to 16:1 in our diets this imbalance can lead to a whole host of ill health problems.
Aim for the best omega 3 supplements possible, derived from small fish if possible as these are lower in the food chain are less likely to contain toxins. Eat oily fish several times per week.
Avoid Trans-Fats At All Costs
Trans-fats are found in almost all manufactured confectionary, many fast food or convenience foods, and are usually present in reduced fat options. Many health claims of baked sunflower oil crisps for example are in fact suggesting that heating a polyunsaturated fat is healthy.
As I suggested, polyunsaturated oil is the oil type that must not be heated at all costs as it will turn into a trans fat!
What Is A Trans-Fat?
A trans-fat is an unsaturated fat such as sunflower oil that has been heated or deliberately treated to alter its properties. The idea in the food industry is to produce a fat that is spreadable, and has a sumptuous consistency in many manufactured goods such as cakes.
Unfortunately for the consumer trans-fats are detrimental to health and should be avoided at all costs. They are a prime cause of a multitude of pathologies including atherosclerosis.
Storage And Extraction
Since saturated fat is stable its storage is not difficult.
Butter need not be stored in the fridge and is actually easier to spread if stored in a butter dish at room temperature. It will not perish before being consumed and any deep yellowing is not a problem.
In contrast this to a vegetable spread or spreadable butter will go moldy if left at room temperature. Avoid spreads at all costs as they are full of trans fats!
Care should be taken when storing unsaturated fats – both mono and poly unsaturated. Due to their reactive nature they need to be kept in the dark, out of direct sunlight, in a cool or room temperature environment.
Avoid plastic containers as toxins can migrate into the oil from the plastics. I was recently horrified to see that the large supermarkets are now storing most olive oils in plastic bottles which makes finding good oils difficult.
Currently Tesco organic extra virgin olive oil is still in glass bottles, but for how long?
On purchasing oils it is best to go for the best quality extra virgin oils, and those that are cold pressed. Cold pressed is preferable since heating unsaturated fats denatures them and turns them into nasty trans-fats.
Energy From Fat
Fear of getting fat by eating fat is a misconception, however it is still wise to consider your calorie needs.
Fat holds 9kcal per gram – more than twice as much as protein and carbohydrates which both hold 4kcal per gram.
Considering this it is very easy to consume many calories if eating fatty foods, and this will contribute to your calorie needs.
If you consume too many calories, whether from fat, carbohydrates or protein, you will gain weight. There are benefits of having fat in your diet as suggested above, but also the presence of fat will help the body use fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K from food.
Take Home Points
- Do not be afraid of natural fats in your diet as they are essential for health.
- Aim to increase omega 3 fats in your diet and avoid trans-fats at all costs.
- If cooking use saturated fat and keep unsaturated fats for raw salad dressings.
- Be aware of your calorie needs and aim to consume fewer calories if trying to lose weight, combined with an increase in activity.
- There are so many health benefits associated with eating fat and it is unfortunate that it has been given such a bad reputation.
I hope this helps you make some informed decisions about the foods, and the fats that you consume.
If you would like further advice please do get in touch. For more on what makes great nutrition why not get started with my five part nutrition course here. And if you’d like to take your nutriton to the next level, learn more about nutrition coaching here.