You probably already know too much fat is bad for you - but did you know too little of the good kind can leave you nutrient deficient, with high cholesterol and lacking in energy? Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains...
A certain amount of fat is required for health. It is needed to absorb certain fat soluble nutrients, manufacture cell walls and produce hormones. Fat is a valuable source of energy, and provides essential fatty acids that the body cannot make itself. However, not all fats are equal in terms of their effects on the body. Eating the right kinds of fat can help to protect you from heart and circulatory problems, but too much of other types can be detrimental to health. There are three main types of fat - saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - and they all have different roles in the body.
Saturated fat is frequently vilified as it is linked to cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. Red meat, butter, cheese, burgers and sausages, are high in saturated fat, as are ghee, coconut and palm oils. A diet high in saturated fat can increase total cholesterol and the harmful LDL cholesterol, which can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
Monosaturated fat found in olive, groundnut and rapeseed oils and nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts and pistachios), olives and avocados are particularly good for heart health. These fats can help lower the harmful LDL cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn oil, sunflower oil, nuts and seeds (walnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds). There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega 3 and omega 6. These are termed essential fats as they cannot be made in the body and need to be obtained through the foods we eat. Polyunsaturated fats help to prevent your arteries becoming blocked and may lower blood pressure.
|Omega 3:||Omega 6:|
Salmon, mackerel, trout,
Corn, safflower, soya bean
1 portion of oily fish = approx 120g.
It is recommended to eat 1-2 servings of oily fish per week. If you don't like oily fish, you can get omega-3 fats from vegetable sources such as flaxseed, nuts and seeds, however it remains uncertain if the omega-3 in these foods brings the same heart healthy benefits as those in oily fish. If you are considering an omega-3 supplement, make sure you discuss with your doctor to ensure there are no contraindications with other drugs you might be taking.
A note on trans fat...
Trans fat is also known as hydrogenated fat. These are commonly used in manufactured food products such as shop-bought pies, pastries and cakes, favoured for their palatability and long shelf life. Trans fats are linked to high cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Read labels on any foods you haven't cooked fresh and try to avoid those containing hydrogenated oils. For more information on trans fats visit www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/fats
Those who are trying to loose weight, lower cholesterol or have concerns about the amount of fat in their diets may want to reduce the total amount of fat they consume.
The recommended daily amount (RDA) of total fat is 95g for men and 70g for women.
Within this amount, too many people eat too much saturated fat. Within the total amount of fat, the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat per day; the average woman should eat no more than 20g saturated fat per day.
When shopping, compare nutrition labels so you can pick foods lower in fat. Use the per 100g column to compare.
High-fat foods = more than 20g of fat per 100g
Low-fat foods = less than 3g fat per 100g
Look out for saturated fat on the label, this tells you how much saturated fat is in the food.
Hig-saturated fat = more than 5g saturates per 100g
Low-saturated fat = 1.5g saturates or less per 100g.
Some packaging also uses the traffic light colour coding to reflect saturated fat levels. 'Red' reflects high saturated fat, 'green' indicates low saturated fat. Aim to eat red foods occasionally and green foods more frequently. Visit the NHS Choices pages for more information on food labelling.
- Choose the healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats to help protect your heart. For example swap butter, lard, ghee, coconut and palm oils with small amounts of olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils or spreads.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and make sure you trim any excess fat and remove the skin from chicken or turkey.
- Use a spray oil or measure out with a teaspoon instead of pouring oil straight from the bottle.
- Read food labels to help you make choices that are lower in total fat and saturated fat.
- Use alternative cooking methods such as baking, boiling, grilling, poaching, microwaving or steaming instead of frying or roasting so you do not need to add extra fat.
- Cut down on foods such as crisps, biscuits and avoid fried foods like samosas, bhajis, chips and doughnuts. Replace with healthier fruits and vegetables.
- Make your own salad dressings using ingredients such as balsamic vinegar, low fat yogurt, lemon juice and herbs.
- Choose lower fat dairy products such as semi-skimmed/skimmed milk, low-fat yogurt and crème fraiche.
- Try leaving out or using less butter on bread when making sandwiches.
- Cottage cheese, ricotta and light soft cheese are low-fat options. Keep your portions of cheese small or opt for less of the strong-flavoured varieties such as Parmesan - a little goes a long way.
*always check labels
Very low intakes of fat limit the amount of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and essential fats in our diet. This group of fat-soluble vitamins play essential roles in vision, skin, the immune system, hormone synthesis, bone health and the nervous and reproductive systems. A lack of fat in the diet will lead to recued absorption of these essential vitamins.
However, all fats are high in calories, giving us nine calories for every gram eaten. So it is important for our weight and health not to eat too much. By reducing the unhealthy saturated and trans fats in our diet and replacing some of these fats with the healthier unsaturated fats we will be getting a better balance for our heart and overall health.
Just because a food packet contains the words 'low-fat' or 'reduced-fat', doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthy choice. The lower-fat claim simply means that the food is 30% lower in fat than the standard equivalent. So if the type of food in question is high in fat in the first place, the lower-fat version may also still be high in fat. For example, a lower-fat mayonnaise is 30% lower in fat than the standard version, but is still high in fat.
Also, foods that are marked 'low-fat' or 'reduced-fat' aren't necessarily low in calories. Often the fat is replaced with sugar, and the food may end up with the same, or an even higher, calorie content. To be sure of the fat content and the calorie content, remember to check the nutrition label on the packet.
Following restrictive, low-fat eating plans/diets may help you lose weight in the short term, but once you go back to old eating habits, your body will be more prone to storing fat and the weight will go straight back on again. If you want to lose weight, concentrate on eating a balanced diet, drinking sensibly and step up the amount of exercise you do. Be cautious of 'faddy' calorie counting and crash diets.
Most recipes can be made low-fat by replacing ingredients or reducing the quantity of fat used:
Tasty, healthy salads with low-fat dressings:
Chargrilled turkey with quinoa tabbouleh & tahini dressing
Barbecued fennel with black olive dressing
Winter slaw with warm celery seed dressing
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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