For the last few decades, we’ve been taught to believe that fat is bad and directly leads to increased body fat. While many people now understand that this isn’t the case, and that low-fat foods often bring their own health issues due to their increased sugar content, there is still a lot of confusion around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats and which should be avoided.
Types of Fat
There are primarily four different types of fat that are found in the foods we eat, and each has a different effect on the human body making the overall classification of them as a single type of macronutrient very misleading.
- Trans fat: mostly found in foods like vegetable shortening, margarine, doughnuts, pastries, fried foods, fast food and junk food, trans fats are definitely a ‘bad’ fat, are alien to the human body and should be completely avoided. They are also found in every food that has a ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oil listed anywhere in its ingredients. This refers to the fact that it is created industrially by adding hydrogen bonds to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature. Trans fats have been linked to everything from heart disease and stroke, to cancer and diabetes.
- Saturated fat: abundant in dairy products, fatty meat, poultry skin and egg yolks, it is also found in many of the same foods as trans fats. There is conflicting research on how bad it truly is. On the one hand, it is seen as the biggest cause of high LDL (bad) cholesterol and is viewed as one of the main dietary causes of heart disease. On the other hand, recent research shows that these supposed negative effects are reduced (or non-existent) among healthy people who eat right and exercise. Moderation is the key here. Given that the fat composition of the body’s cells is largely saturated fat and that it plays an important role in optimal hormone production, it is vital to ensure that it is included in your diet and that it comes from a high quality source.
- Monounsaturated fat: having been shown to prevent heart disease by helping to lower our LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise our HDL (good) cholesterol, it can be found in nuts, seeds and oils such as olive, peanut and rapeseed. It can be considered a ‘good’ fat and should comprise a significant proportion of our daily fat intake. These fats are liquid at room temperature but become solid when chilled.
- Polyunsaturated fat: most abundant in oily fish, nuts and seeds, it should also comprise a significant proportion of our daily fat intake. Its chemical structure has more than one double-bonded carbon atom, which is what we know more commonly as essential fatty acids (see box). These fats remain liquid even when chilled.
Overall, about 20-30% of your total daily calorie intake should come from ‘good’ fats, with the vast majority from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
What Should I Cook With?
When it comes to cooking, the best solution is to heat foods in a gentle and healthy way with stable fats that have a high smoke point and don’t degrade when heated.
Oils high in saturated fats, which are extremely stable when exposed to heat, are the best choice for high heat cooking and frying. Coconut oil, which has a high smoke point and does not oxidise easily at high temperatures or go rancid, is therefore the best option for stir frying. Alternatively, butter, ghee or other animal fats could be used in moderation.
Monounsaturated fats are relatively stable and work well when cooking at low to medium temperatures. Avocado oil is a great choice in this category. Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable and may produce significant levels of free radicals when exposed to heat.
An Overview of Various Fats and Oils
There are a wide variety of sources of dietary fat. Below is an overview of some of the available options.
Oils in Food
Nuts: these are loaded with many amazing nutrients, healthy fats and protein. They are one of the best sources of alpha-lenolenic acid, a type of heart-healthy omega-3. Try adding almonds, walnuts and brazils into your diet; in smoothies, salads or as nut butters.
Seeds: also full of health-promoting minerals, beneficial fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Great ones to include are flax, chia, pumpkin and sunflower. Chia seeds, in particular, are considered a superfood due to their extremely rich nutrient profile and high amount of omega-3s.
Avocados: packed with nutrients, these are a great source of monounsaturated fat along with powerful antioxidants, folate and vitamin E. They help to maintain a healthy immune system, slow ageing and decrease the incidence of heart disease and stroke.
Wild fish: naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Look for sustainable wild caught sources. Smaller fish are likely to have lower levels of harmful mercury.
Animal products: if part of your diet, organic, pasture-fed dairy, free-range eggs and wild or grass-fed meats should be consumed in moderation for their healthy fat profile, vitamins and necessary cholesterol.
Other Fats and Oils:
• Coconut oil: offers a massive array of health benefits and is great for both cooking and using on the hair and body! It offers antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-cancer properties, as well as improving digestion, nutrient absorption and intestinal health. It also provides cardiovascular benefits, promotes kidney and liver health, supports the immune system, benefits metabolism and weight management, and increases HDL, the good, protective cholesterol. It’s high saturated fat content isn’t a cause for concern since the fatty acids it contains are mediumchain triglycerides, which are easily metabolised and used as energy by the body.
• Olive oil: this is rich in monounsaturated fat and
antioxidants such as chlorophyll, carotenoids and vitamin E. It is great for reducing blood pressure, managing diabetes and lessening the severity of asthma and arthritis. In fact, including olive oil in your diet can help you maintain a lower, healthy weight. It is a great oil for salad dressings, homemade mayonnaise and drizzling over pasta or steamed vegetables. Look for a reliable extra virgin brand which comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and has low acidity.
• Seed oils: these are generally fairly light oils made from the seeds of plants and are mainly suitable for baking and salad dressings. Look for unrefined cold pressed versions which are better for your health. Refined versions have a higher smoke point, but the high levels of unstable polyunsaturated fats make them less suitable for high heats.
- Sunflower oil is a good all-purpose oil that is very light and almost tasteless.
- Safflower oil is ideal for cooking spicy foods and is a little thicker than sunflower oil.
- Sesame seed oil comes in both a pale version that is pressed from untoasted seeds and a rich, dark toasted oil that has a strong nutty flavour and is used in oriental cuisines.
- Grapeseed oil has a delicate, mild flavoured and is made from the grape seeds left over from wine making. It is a good source of vitamin E and oleic acid.
- Rapeseed oil has been bred over time to minimise its erucic acid content which is toxic to humans. Also called canola oil (‘Canadian Oil Low Acid’) it contains a higher percentage of monounsaturated fat than any other oil, except olive oil.
• Nut oils: full of flavour and great for salad dressings and mayonnaise, nut oils such as walnut, hazelnut and macadamia have high levels of monounsaturated fats. Walnut oil is intensely flavoured and delicious in salad dressings and marinades, drizzled over vegetables and pasta, or stirred into freshly cooked noodles. It can also be used to add flavour to cakes and biscuits.
• Avocado oil: similar to olive oil this has a mild, nutty flavour and has a high monounsaturated fat profile. It is very versatile and can be used for frying and in salad dressings. It is also a good source of vitamin E.
• Groundnut or peanut oil: this mild tasting oil is available in refined, unrefined, cold pressed and roasted varieties, with the latter having a stronger nutty flavour. The refined version can be used for light sautéing or for making sauces. Use it sparingly however due to it high level of omega-6 fatty acids.
Angela Bryant Health Coach in conjunction with Appleseeds