Sort the good fat from the bad with our expert guide to eating a healthy, balanced diet...
High-fat diets are often linked with major health problems including obesity and heart disease. However, we all need some fat in our diet to stay healthy. Fat is a good energy source and vital for the body to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K.
The confusing part is that not all fats were created equally - some are better for us than others. What's more, although high in calories, there is evidence that you could burn fat more quickly by changing the type you eat. So how can we get the balance right?
- Monounsaturated oils - olive oil rather than sunflower oil for instance.
- The right balance of 'omegas'. Linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3) are types of polyunsaturated 'essential fatty acids' or EFAs. Foods containing omega-3 EFAs - vital for a healthy heart and good lung function, and found in oily fish, flaxseed oil, flaxseeds (linseeds), walnut oil, mustard seeds, pumpkin seeds, leafy green veg, grains and spirulina (an algae available as a powder or tablets from health stores). Most of us get enough omega-6 oils from sunflower, safflower and corn oil.
- Foods including almonds, avocadoes, olives and olive oil, cashew, macadamia nuts and peanuts, which all contain oleic acid, a component of omega-9.
- Omega-9 also contains stearic acid, found in animal fat, it's a saturated fat, but it is more likely to be used as energy than stored as fat. Crucially, the body can convert it to oleic acid, which is monounsaturated and therefore heart-healthy.
Cut back on...
- The amount of saturated fats you consume. They can raise blood-cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. There is no need to stop eating red meat - in fact, if you trim the fat from a piece of meat and it looks lean, it's reasonably low in fat at between 4-8 grams per 100g and likely to be lower in fat than a piece of roast chicken with the skin left on.
- Trans fats. It is now thought that their effect on the body may be worse than saturated fats. Check ingredient labels. If you see 'hydrogenated oil/fat' or 'partially hydrogenated oil/fat' listed, then that product is likely to include trans fats; and the higher up the ingredients list it is, the more trans fats there are likely to be.
- Foods laden with saturated and/or trans saturated and/or trans fats, including biscuits, butter, cakes, cheese, pastries, pies, sausages, ready meals, bought sandwiches and foods containing coconut, palm oil, or lard.
Know your fats...
- Saturated fats - Found in fatty meat and dairy products. These have been linked with increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, so it's best to cut back on these, aiming for no more than 20g a day. Saturated fats are stable at high temperatures, which is why butter and coconut oil are often used when roasting or frying.
- Polyunsaturated fats - Found in plants and seafood. Good sources include sunflower, safflower and corn oil. Can help lower levels of bad LDL cholesterol, but also lower good HDL cholesterol levels, which is why it's better to opt for monounsaturated fats such as olive oil.
- Monounsaturated fats - Found in plants and seafood (eg olive oil, oily fish and walnuts. They help to lower bad LDL cholesterol and so protect you from heart disease.
- Omega-3s - Linolenic acid is found in oily fish, linseed and pumpkin seeds, soya, walnuts and walnut oil, and green vegetables. Most of us don't get enough omega-3s in our diet. Omega-6s Linoleic acid is found in sunflower, safflower and corn oil, margarines, sunflower and sesame seeds. Most of us get enough omega-6s in our diet.
- Trans fatty acids - Avoid them by cutting out foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Hydrogenated fats/oils - A chemical process that turns cheap liquid oils such as palm oil, as well as sunflower and rapeseed oil, into solids used in biscuits, cakes, pastries and margarines. It's now accepted that the hydrogenation process produces trans fats that are even more harmful than saturated fat.
This article was last reviewed on 26 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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