Let me hit you with a fat fact – you absolutely need fats for optimal health. Capishe? In fact, low fat diets cause nothing but low moods and misery and in our opinion should be avoided. The vital thing when it comes to fat intake is to understand how to incorporate fats into your diet to make the most of their awesome properties and to feel confident in your source choices.
Let’s start our journey with the Atkins diet which was hugely popular in the early noughties and accept that it was both flawed and misinterpreted on a number of levels. It left many followers stuck in a cycle of carb phobia, excessive dairy/meat consumption, lacking in fibre and phytonutrients from fruit and vegetables – not to mention suffering from chronic constipation and serotonin deficiency, hardly a recipe for health if you ask us.
However, we have to be grateful to Dr Atkins for opening our eyes to the fact that fat is clearly not the prime culprit in today’s global obesity crisis. Everyone knows someone who lost weight on this high fat Atkins Diet so gradually people are more accepting of the concept that fat does not necessarily make you fat. This was a good thing and marks an important shift in thinking.
The important thing about fat is to fully understand the different types, the benefits and how to include them in your diet. When it comes to fats, the amount, quality and preparation all contribute to the effect they have on the body.
So here is our guide to the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to fats and how to use them:
The Science Bit
Fat is a concentrated source of energy with 9 calories per gram. It provides essential fatty acids and transports fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K around the body. Fat is a component of every cell wall, it supports and insulates our entire body and is a great source of energy.
Fats consist of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in chains of different lengths and shapes. Fats are defined by their level of saturation. Saturation is defined by the number of double bonds between atoms within the chain of fatty acids.
- Monounsaturated = Single Double Bond (mon0=one)
- Polyunsaturated fats = More than one double bond (Poly =many)
- Saturated fat = All carbon bonds paired with hydrogen atoms.
- Trans Fats = Man made fat where the nature of the bond is changed by industrial processing.
There are benefits in consuming most fats including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated.
Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. These decrease total blood cholesterol but maintain your HDL (healthy) cholesterol. Sources include olive oil, macadamia oil, avocados, nuts and olives.
Polyunsaturated fats are liquid or soft at room temperature and decrease total blood cholesterol by lowering both the LDL (bad) cholesterol and the HDL (good) cholesterol.
It’s also important to further differentiate between types of polyunsaturated fats, in fact it’s essential!
Essential Fatty Acids (omega 3 & 6)
Omega 3 and omega 6 are known as “essential” fatty acids as the body cannot produce them and so they must be sourced from diet. Omega 6 are abundant in our diet particularly from grain fed meat and cereals. Although we need omega 6 fatty acids our body also needs to maintain a specific ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 yet some experts estimate a typical modern diet contains a ratio of 10-30:1 (omega 6: omega 3 ). For this reason most people should address their omega 3 intake. Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory, support healthy brain function and have been used to treat depression, ADD and anxiety. Sources of omega 3 fats include oily fish, ground flax seeds (linseed), omega eggs, algae and nuts.
Saturated fats – although demonised in the past for increasing bad cholesterol and the risk of heart disease – new research has confirmed this is not the case and there are numerous benefits to consuming saturated fats. As these fats are “saturated” in hydrogen atoms they are less reactive and more stable when heated making them a preferred choice for cooking. Saturated fats are also integral to our bodies cell membrane structure, they assist in providing fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and cholesterol which our body needs for many biological processes including hormone production.
We’re big fans of coconut oil and butter as both are packed with nutrients! Coconut oil should always be extra virgin (here’s why) and butter sourced from grass fed cow’s like Kerry Gold or Yeo Valley. If you suffer from lactose intolerance and tend to avoid dairy you can boil up the butter and make your own ghee, it’s so simple, check out our instructional video
The Bad – Abusing Fats
Omega 3 Deficiency
Most diets contain excessive levels of omega 6 which has an inflammatory effect on the body. Increase your omega 3’s with oily fish. Flaxseed, walnuts and hemp seed oil are also sources of omega 3, however, conversions of these fats into long chain EPA and DHA in the body is not efficient (suspected to be less than 1%) so seafood is a preffered source. If none of these appeal supplement with a pure grade, filtered fish oil such as Eskimo, Nordic Naturals, MorEPA or New Chapter
Fats transform when heated, a process called oxidation changes the chemical structure of the fats destroying many of its beneficial properties and increasing its potential to have a harmful effect on the body.
Fats become also rancid easily especially if exposed to heat. Incorrect storage during retail and at home may mean a fat is rancid by the time it reaches your plate. It’s worth investing in a good, organic brand. Store fats in a cool dry place. Cold pressed oils, nuts and seeds should be stored in the fridge in an air tight container. The more wrinkly your nuts are the more rancid they are!
One of the best way to gain the full benefits from fats is use low temperature cooking or cook with broth/stock and add fats to foods after cooking, check out Fitter Chef’s Cook it Healthy advice.
Trans Fats/Hydrogenated Fats
These are chemically modified fats developed by the food industry to keep processed food products more stable. Our body was never designed to metabolise fats of this nature and they create havoc with our biochemistry. These fats are strongly linked to inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and obesity and should be avoided at all costs.