Understanding which fats are good and which fats are bad has to be one of the most controversial topics of dietary health advice and even now some of the messages continue to be misleading. Fats are essential for our health, energy and metabolism. A fatty membrane surrounds every cell in our body and 60% of the dry weight of our brain is fat but not all fats are created equal. By understanding more about different fats, we can begin to identify those which are most essential and why.
Why is fat important
Fat serves as the transport mechanism for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats also provide a concentrated source of energy, influence cell function and structure, contain anti-inflammatory properties, can protect the heart and are needed for hormone production.
The main types of dietary fats include saturated, monosaturated and polyunsaturated.
These fats are solid at room temperature and are found mainly in animal sources including butter, cheese, meat, lard and cream. Plant based sources include coconut oil and palm oil. Your body can also make saturated fat through consumption of excess sugar, which can be turned into fat. Recommendations suggest saturated fats should be consumed in moderation but if these fats are eaten in natural foods other important nutrients are also provided, so though it’s important to have a balanced diet saturated fats in natural foods shouldn’t be avoided.
At room temperature, these fats are liquid and include olive oil, rapeseed, nuts and seeds and some fruits and vegetables, such as avocados. Monosaturated fats are generally considered healthy and make up a huge proportion of the Mediterranean diet, which has been hailed as a diet for optimal health and longevity. This includes lots of fish, vegetables, fruits and olive oil.
These fats are liquid at room temperature and sources include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, meat, dairy produce, eggs and fish. ‘Good’ polyunsaturated fats are the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, which we consume through our diet. Foods high in these essential fatty acids include nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs.
These fats are not natural fats and are created through processing or cooking at high temperatures and can have a detrimental impact on our health. These can be created from vegetable oils that have been manipulated by food manufacturing to produce a solid fat, which can be used in baked products, cakes, biscuits, crisps, fried food, take-aways and sauces. These fats are known as trans fat/hydrogenated fats and have been implicated in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and increased inflammation.
We can also create these trans fats whilst cooking when we heat monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats to high temperatures, which changes the molecular structure of the oil. For this reason, when using fats to cook/fry food at high temperatures, saturated fats such as coconut oil are most stable alongside extra virgin olive oil, as long as you don’t heat to smoke point.
What fats should we eat?
It’s important to consume fats through natural foods rather then highly processed, packaged alternatives. Examples include using olive oil as a salad dressing rather than ready-made salad dressings and opting for butter rather than margarine. Eating a range of animal products in moderation can provide our bodies with required nutrients. The importance of eating fish should not be underestimated as this provides essential omega-3’s, which have an important role in brain health, hormone balance, vision, immunity and heart health.
Helping children to understand the importance of consuming natural foods and fats for their growth and development is an important message. Fats shouldn’t be discussed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but focus should be on those, which are most beneficial for our health.
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years.
Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. She has also published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’.