For many years, the human race was warned of the dangers of saturated fat and low fat diets were the norm. The issue with this was that although people were consuming less saturated fat, they were also consuming less healthy fats. Nowadays, fat and saturated fat doesn’t have such a bad reputation, and there’s good reason for this! Fat is extremely important in maintaining hormonal balance in the body. Fats are also responsible for the uptake of important vitamins and minerals, as well as building cell membranes, and for clotting blood when you’re injured. It is also a great secondary energy source – carbohydrates being the primary source. For long-term health, some fats are better than others. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, whereas industrial-made trans fats are not so beneficial. Saturated fats fall somewhere in-between. That is a little bit of info about fat in general, but what is so good about fat and why were we told to stay away from it for so long?!
Good fats tend to come from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. ‘Healthy’ fats are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil, whereas saturated fats will be solid, like lard or coconut oil. The most beneficial fats are monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. You may have heard of people in the Mediterranean living longer due to decreased levels of heart disease – this is thought to be because of the high levels of healthy fats been consumed from fish and olive oil, high in monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are most often used for cooking, unless you’re using olive oil. Polyunsaturated fats could come in the form of sunflower, safflower oil or fish, and these are known as essential fats because the body can’t make these! These must be obtained through your diet. Polyunsaturated fat is important for blood clotting, muscle movement, and building cell membranes, as well as nerve coverings. Polyunsaturated fat comes in the form of omega-3 and omega-6.
Omega-3 and 6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent heart disease and stroke, as well as reducing blood pressure, and increasing levels of good cholesterol (HDL). Good sources of omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as walnuts, flax seeds, and soybeans. Omega-6 is also beneficial for long term health, as it may protect you against heart disease. Foods rich in omega-6 include vegetable oils such as safflower, soybean, sunflower, and corn oils.
If you’re going to stay away from any fat, it should be trans fat! It is a by-product of hydrogenation, which is simply a process that turns healthy liquid fats into solid fats, resulting in a longer shelf date, but far more unhealthy. This is what turns healthy vegetable oils into not so healthy saturated fats! On food labels, this might be listed as “partially hydrogenated oil”. It’s found in everything from cookies to margarine, and ready meals to chips! By eating foods high in trans fats, you will be increasing the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and reducing the amount of HDL. Trans fats can also create inflammation, potentially leading to heart disease, diabetes, and all sorts of other things that you’d like to avoid! Trans fats have no known health benefits, but fortunately we are seeing less and less of these in our food nowadays.
This is where saturated fat sits on the scale of good to bad! They are very common in our diets if you eat any of the following on a regular basis: red meat, milk, cheese, full-fat yoghurt, coconut oil, as well as a whole list of baked goods. The word “saturated” is referring to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom in a fatty acid – the chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible, so it is saturated with hydrogen atoms! A diet rich in saturated fats can increase total levels of cholesterol. So although it raises good HDL cholesterol, it also raises bad LDL cholesterol, and we don’t want that. Coconut oil has spiked in popularity lately, as some studies have found that although it is a saturated fat, it may raise HDL slightly more than LDL. However, olive oil and sunflower oil can increase HDL levels and reduce levels of LDL at the same time, as well as getting you some healthy omega-3 fatty acids – it’s killing two birds with one stone.
The world of nutrition is rife with debate. You won’t always get a clear-cut answer to your questions because most foods have positives and negatives! Try to keep saturated fats limited to about 10-15% of your daily fat intake, stay away from trans fats, and use plenty of vegetable oils to get your omega-3 and 6 fatty acids!