Fat has always been a topic of hot discussion in the world of health and fitness. Once dubbed the devil of all nutrients, its reputation has gone full circle with more and more of us are adopting high-fat diets. Incorporating a range of healthy fats into your diet will provide a whole host of health benefits, but knowing which foods contain them is a must. Read on to clear the confusion and get your fat facts right!
At a Glance:
- Fat is an Essential Nutrient
- High Fat Diets can Prevent Disease
- Healthy Fats can Support Weight Loss
- Dietary Fat Provides a Whole Host of Health Benefits
Forgetting Fat’s Bad Reputation
Just the hearing the word fat used to be enough to make your clothes feel tighter! The fact that we store excess fat on the body in the form of wobbly bits is likely why. This negative association goes deeper in that most heavily processed, so-called ‘junk’ foods are laced with added fats. It can be hard to get your head around the fact that fat is good for you.
In the 1950’s a huge study found a link between high-fat diets, high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. From then onwards the low-fat approach was pushed for the population in general.
Fast-forward ten years and the nation was in the grips of an obesity epidemic, with heart disease remaining the number on killer – which didn’t add up. Reanalysis of the study has since shown that sugar was in fact the key correlation with heart disease.
More recent research has gone on to evidence the many vital functions of fat for humans – further curtailing its bad rep! So, fat has had to fight its corner over the past few decades but we now know that fat is an essential nutrient providing a whole host of health benefits.
We Need Fat!
Forget fat-free diets, we need fat to survive! Fat is not the extra few pounds you’re trying to trim, that is merely how your body stores excess. Fat is a nutrient which is needed throughout the body to carry out many functions necessary for survival.
Consider this, fat makes up around 60% of your brain
Hang on, let’s say this, one more time…
Consider this, fat makes up around 60% of your brain – and the fatty acids we need to maintain this can’t be made in the body, so must come from our diet. Bottom line: FAT IS OUR FRIEND!
Fat is a Macronutrient, which means that the body needs it in large amounts. Just like its macro counterparts carbs and protein, fat has many important physiological functions.
- Source of Energy – Provides 9kcal per 1g fat, which is why high fat foods are calorific
- Absorbs Vitamins – Needed to absorb and distribute vitamins A, D, E and K
- Provides Structure – Makes up cell membranes, helping to control what goes in and out
In the UK it is currently recommended that we get ~35% of our food energy from fat. Having said this, the benefits of high-fat and low-carb diets are widely evidenced and advocate increasing fat intake to around 70%.
Either way, fats should be a key player in any diet – and avoiding them at all costs will only drive deficiencies.
Not all Fats are Equal!
The word fat is an umbrella term, encompassing all of the different varieties. So when we talk about fat in terms of nutrition, it’s important to distinguish what kind it is.
Fats can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, and most foods containing fat provide both in varying proportions. These sub-groups can also be separated out into individual fatty acids, which have different properties depending on their chemical structure.
Without getting too science-y, the point is that not all fats are the same – and it is for this reason that some are good for us and others not-so-good.
Calories are not the Enemy
Fats contain more than double the amount of calories per gram when compared with carbohydrates and protein. For this reason, foods containing a lot of fat will provide a lot of energy. This can be off-putting to some people, particularly when the traffic light system warns us away from high fat foods with a red light! This gives us no indication of which fats the food contains and how many calories come from good fats. We need to open our minds to nutrients within nutrients and ditch the whole calorie-counting idea.
I cast my mind back to early last year, when the headline “Strongbow Dark Fruits is Healthier than an Avocado” went viral for obvious reasons! If you don’t recall this then you can read more here. Long story short, someone had stumbled across the fact that when using the ‘syns’ calculator to monitor food intake with the Slimming World plan, avocados came out as being worse for you than a can of cider. Needless to say – this is not true! It was merely the higher calorie content of an avocado that gave it a more sinful label.
As a general rule, if you’re eating real food that is as unprocessed as possible, you don’t have to worry about counting calories or fat.
Dietary fat can be found in both plant and animal-based foods. We’ve mentioned that this will be present as a mixture of fatty acids, but it is the predominant fatty acid which will determine if that food is to be avoided or included in the diet.
Fats found naturally in real foods are always better for us than those added to processed foods. Let’s take a look at some of the healthier fats and where to find them:
- Oleic Acid – An Omega-9 fatty acid which has been shown to reduce inflammation and may also have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer. Find me in: Olive oil, nut oils, meat, poultry and cheese, avocados and cold-pressed veg oils.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Promote heart, brain and eye health, are anti-inflammatory, reduce blood pressure and maintain a healthy balance of cholesterol. Fine me in: Fatty fish, seafood, nuts, seeds, plant oils and microalgae.
- Medium-Chain Triglycerides – More commonly known as ‘MCTs’ these are a type of saturated fat that can support weight loss, increase exercise performance and support a beneficial balance of cholesterol. Find me in: Coconut oil, cheese, butter, milk and yoghurt.
- Saturated Fat – That’s right! The concept of sat-fats being the root of all evil has long been abandoned. Forgetting the sketchy and misinterpreted research of the 1950s, more recent (not to mention bigger and better) studies have found that there is NO link between saturated fat and heart disease. What’s more, there’s also evidence to show that saturated fats raise levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol, which is actually beneficial for our heart and cardiac system! Find me in: Good sources of sat fats tend to be healthy and nutritious, as they are found naturally in unprocessed foods, such as: Grass-fed meat, full-fat milk and cheese, coconuts and dark chocolate.
Fats to Avoid
Processed and junk foods are packed with fat, which is added during the manufacturing process to add taste and texture. Most ‘bad’ fats will fall under this category, but some unhealthy fats occur naturally too.
- Trans Fats – Added to processed foods, have been shown to raise ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower ‘good’ cholesterol, as well as increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Foods to avoid: Most processed baked goods – cakes, biscuits, pies, pizzas, cookies, as well as margarine.
- Omega-6 Fatty Acids – Increase inflammation – the root cause of many diseases, also elevate blood triglycerides and impair insulin sensitivity. Foods to avoid: Refined vegetables oils and foods cooked in this oil, mayonnaise (not the mayo made by our friends @ Hunter and Gather though!), seeds and nuts.
Choosing foods that are minimally processed and avoiding junk foods is the best way to keep on track with your fat intake. Fats found naturally in meat, cheese, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds and plants are not harmful in moderation.
We hope you can now see that fat isn’t the devil it was once made out to be. Knowing which fats to avoid and which to include in moderation is the key to enjoying their many health benefits.
- Eliminating fat from the diet off the back of some controversial research has led to the increased consumption of sugar, refined carbs and processed junk food
- Research has indicated that it is these foods which are driving disease and inflating the obesity epidemic
- Incorporating healthy fats into your diet will help you to stay healthy, energised and nourished