Up until the 1980’s a typical English breakfast consisted of a fry-up of sausages, bacon and eggs. This was until the government demonized fats and recommended that we cut back on saturated fat and cholesterol to reduce our risk of heart disease. We replaced sausages and bacon with bread and pasta, and butter with margarine and vegetable oils. Food manufactures reduced the fat in their products and replaced it with sugar. Statistics show that obesity and type 2 diabetes have sky rocketed since the 1980’s and experts say that the recommendation to reduce our intake of fat was unfortunately not based on hard evidence.
This has led to a lot of confusion around how much fat and which types of fats we should be eating. This article is designed to give you a bit of background on what fat is and my recommendations on how to make sure you’re getting the right sorts of fats in your diet.
WHAT ARE FATS?
Fats are one of the three macronutrients (the others being carbohydrates and protein) that are essential in our diets to provide our bodies with energy. They are made up of building blocks called fatty acids that can differ in structure, chain length and saturation. These differences affect whether they are solid or liquid at room temperature, and the impact they have on our health.
WHY DO WE NEED FATS IN OUR DIET?
As well as providing energy, fat is a source of essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce themselves such as omega 3's. Fats are incorporated into cell membranes and help the body absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and certain antioxidants such as carotenoids. Fats help to cushion vital organs such as the heart and kidneys which protects them from injury. They also take longer to digest so help to keep you fuller and satisfied for longer after a meal.
TYPES OF FAT
Most foods contain a mixture of fats but are categorised according to the most abundant fat within the food. Fats are generally divided into saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature and are found in foods such as:
• Butter, ghee and lard
• Full-fat dairy foods such as cream, milk and cheese
• Fatty meat and poultry
• Palm oil
• Coconut oil/cream
• Processed foods such as pies, sausages and burgers
• Cakes, biscuits and pastries
Saturated fats have been shown to increase the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. This can lead to plaque build-up in the wall of the blood vessels, causing them to narrow and increase the risk of heart disease and strokes.
With the increase in popularity of coconut oil I often get asked whether it is good for you or not. Coconut oil is around 85% saturated fat, which is around one third more saturated fat than butter. Despite this, coconut oil has not been shown to increase LDL cholesterol as much as butter.1 The most notable difference is that coconut oil contains a type of fat called medium chain fatty acids. These fats have been shown to have various health benefits such as less likely to be stored in the body as fat and more readily used as a source of energy.2 However, there is limited evidence to support this and further research needs to be carried out.
One advantage of saturated fats is that they are more stable during cooking compared to unsaturated fats, which means they are less likely to oxidise and form aldehydes (which can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer).
Monounsaturated fats are found in foods associated with the Mediterranean diet such as:
• Nuts such as almonds, peanuts, cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans and pistachios
• Some vegetable oils such as olive, rapeseed, sunflower, sesame, safflower and peanut
Monounsaturated fats help to lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol by carrying cholesterol away from the cells and towards the liver where it is broken down and excreted. These type of fats also help to maintain levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol.
The body can make all the fatty acids it needs except for two polyunsaturated fats; alpha linolenic acid (omega 3) and linoleic acid (omega 6). These fats are considered essential fatty acids and they must be obtained through food.
Omega 3 fats are found in food such as:
• Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, fresh tuna, sardines, trout, herring and kippers
• Plant foods such as linseeds/flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and rapeseed oil
Omega 6 fats are found in foods such as:
• Vegetable oils such as rapeseed, sunflower and olive
• Nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans and pistachios
• Seeds such as poppy, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower
Similarly to monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats also help to lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. Research into omega 3’s has shown that these types of fats help to enhance the immune system, reduce inflammation and improve cognitive function in those with Alzheimer’s disease.3
HOW MUCH FAT ARE WE RECOMMENDED TO HAVE?
The government recommends that our total fat intake should not exceed 35% of our total daily energy intake from food (i.e. calories). An average women consuming 2000 calories a day should therefore be consuming no more than 70g of fat a day.
We are also recommended to limit our intake of saturated fat to less than 11% of our total daily energy intake from food, which for an average women is around 20g of fat per day.
Food labels display the fat and saturated fat content of foods. For example, per 100g our Smokin’ Edamame Mix contains 15.3g of total fat and 1.9g of saturated fat per 100g. This is written on the packet as below:
Of which saturates 1.9g
A food high in fat will contain more than 17.5g (red) of total fat per 100g or more than 5g (red) of saturated fat per 100g. Whilst it’s important to pay attention to food labels and limit our intake of foods high in fat, sugar and salt, there are a few exceptions. For example nuts are high in fat and will appear red on the packet, however we know nuts are very good for us and we should be including them in our diet.
Reduce your intake of foods high in saturated fats (such as processed foods like cakes and biscuits, fatty meats, and full fat dairy such as cream and cheese) and replace them with unsaturated fats found in nuts, avocado and fish. According to data we are consuming close to the recommended intake of total fat but slightly too much saturated fat. Although considerable progress has been made to reduce our intake of saturated fat, there is still some way to go. Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (and to a lesser extent monounsaturated fats) helps to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. However, replacing unsaturated fats with carbohydrates did not see any improvement or even worsened cardiovascular disease risk.4
Increase your intake of omega 3 fats such as oily fish like salmon, walnuts, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds. You can incorporate nuts and seeds into your diet by sprinkling over porridge, salads and stir-fry’s. Data shows that most of us are eating enough omega 6 fats but very low levels of omega 3. This has led to an unhealthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 20:1, instead of the 1:1 humans evolved on.5 This unhealthy ratio can promote inflammation which increases the risk of diseases such as obesity and diabetes.4
Try to eat a handful of nuts a day. Recent evidence has shown that a handful (25-30g) of nuts 5 times a week can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.6
- Read food labels to help you understand what foods are high in total fat and saturated fat. You will notice that you slowly begin to learn more about the food you eat.
Speak again soon,
Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist