Within our supermarkets, there’s almost limitless variety when it comes to food. And these days, anything marketed as ‘full fat’ has negative connotations, while ‘low fat’ or ‘nonfat’ products are held in high esteem. This paradigm would lead you to believe that all fat is bad. But is that truly the case?
What Do Fats Do?
As part of a balanced diet, it’s essential that we eat a small amount of fat. Fat is a source of necessary fatty acids, which we use for energy storage. Our bodies can’t make these fatty acids themselves, so rely on getting them through food.
Fat can additionally help the body absorb particular vitamins, such as vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E – these vitamins can’t be absorbed without the help of fats. Fat stores in your body are also useful for things such as cushioning and warmth.
● Fats can be good for you, and are essential for absorbing particular vitamins
● There are certain types of fat that we should try to avoid, such as saturated and trans fats. These can heighten your cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease and strokes
● Studies have shown that some fats can make you healthier and improve your blood cholesterol
● Low fat diets don’t seem to reduce the risk of heart disease. They also don’t seem to reduce certain types of cancer
● The percentage of fat in your diet is less important than the types of fat you consume
Saturated and Trans Fats
The type of fat we should try to cut back on are saturated fats. According to the NHS, most people in the UK overindulge when it comes to saturated fats. The guidelines recommended by the government are as follows:
- Men should not consume more than 30g of saturated fat a day
- Women should not consume more than 20g of saturated fat a day
- Children should consume less saturated fat than adults
It can be difficult to avoid eating any saturated fats, as they can be found in many foods – sweet and savoury. They are more likely to be found in animal based products, however, such as meat and dairy products. The biggest exceptions to this rule are plant based oils, like palm oil and coconut oil.
The main concern with saturated fats is increasing your cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is primarily made in the liver, which is carried in the blood either as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
The former is considered to be the ‘bad’ cholesterol, while HDL is the ‘good’ cholesterol – it takes excess cholesterol to the liver, where it’s disposed of. LDL instead carries cholesterol to your arteries, where it can collect in the vessel walls. Should this build up over time, it could lead to heart disease or a stroke.
When it comes to trans fats, there are no known health benefits. Like saturated fats, these can raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Trans fats can be found naturally in some meat and dairy products, as well as in hydrogenated vegetable oil. The good news is that in the UK, we don’t tend to eat a lot of trans fats – on average we consume around half the recommended daily maximum.
A Balanced Diet
There have been many studies over the years looking into how much fat humans should be ingesting, and what makes up a balanced diet. For instance, a study conducted in 2007 found that high fat dairy products (which are high in saturated fats) can reduce the risk of women experiencing anovulatory infertility (failure to ovulate). Women who maintained a low fat diet were more likely to have general infertility issues too.
Another study, which ended in 2001, was an eight-year study of almost 50,000 women that looked into the correlation between low fat diets and the risk of heart disease, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. The researchers found that the womens’ diet did not significantly impact their risk of developing any of the three diseases.
Studies have found, however, that there is evidence for particular kinds of fats, such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, improving your blood cholesterol and supporting heart health. The former can be found in nuts and vegetable oils, while the latter can be found in fish such as salmon and trout.
The message we can take from such studies is that we need to be more conscious of what types of fat we are consuming. Don’t avoid all fats, but try to limit your intake of saturated fats. The type of fat is much more important than the percentage!