Facts About Fats

“Don’t eat fatty food…”

“Eat more fatty food…”

“Don’t eat those fats, they’re bad for you…”

“Eat these fats, they’re good for you…”

“Those fats are only good for you if…”

Have you noticed that the advice around fats gets incredibly confusing very fast? Everybody seems to have an opinion on whether you should include much in the way of fat in your diet and if so, which fats.

We wanted to cut through the confusion and give you the run-down on which fats you might want to consider increasing and decreasing in your diet.

Saturated vs Unsaturated

Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products – meat and dairy – but also some plant-based products, like coconuts. It’s fairly easy to recognise a saturated fat when it’s separated from its source – it will generally be solid at a comfortable room temperature (ie, under 30°C). Think lard, butter, copha, and the like.

Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based products. Generally, the extracted fat is liquid at room temperature. Think olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil.

Hydrogenation and Trans Fats

‘Hydrogenation’ happens when an unsaturated fat – for example, olive oil – is chemically treated so that it becomes solid at room temperature. This is a common process used to create oils suitable for margarine, ‘spreadable’ butters, slower-spoiling deep fryer oil, and for a cheap butter substitute in bakery goods.

When fats are hydrogenised, you end up with ‘trans fats’. Research seems to suggest that these trans fats do nothing good in your body, but can increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and cause coronary heart disease.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

Our bodies are pretty awesome things. They can piece together most of the fat molecules that they need from the various fats and other food that we eat. However, our bodies don’t seem to be able to produce omega-3 fatty acids for themselves – and these are essential to our health. Without them, our cell membranes don’t work as effectively, and our production of some regulatory hormones is negatively affected. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, nuts, flaxseeds (often labelled as linseeds in Australia), and green leafy vegetables.

Omega-6 fatty acids are another type of essential fat. However, they’re far more common in a standard Western diet. Some people have theorised that omega-6 and omega-3 intake should be carefully balanced for optimal health, although scientific studies don’t seem to have reached a conclusive answer.

You Might Need More…

‘Good’ fats can help your body to function more smoothly. Consider adding avocado, flaxseed oil, and green leafy vegetables to your diet. Where possible, eat these raw rather than cooked, as it’s possible that overheating these beneficial fats will harm their usefulness.

You Might Need Less…

‘Bad’ fats generally taste good, but don’t give your body any health benefits. There have been a number of contradictory studies around saturated fats – whether their effects on the body are positive or negative. We’d suggest sticking to unprocessed sources of saturated fats wherever possible – for example, get them from meat rather than from highly-processed ice creams. And definitely limit your intake of deep-fried and commercial baked goods – you’re better off cooking these at home where you can control the ingredients to avoid trans fats.

More information

Heart Foundation – Saturated Fats

Dietitians Association of Australia – Unsaturated Fats

ChemWiki – Hydrogenation of Unsaturated Fats and Trans Fat

Harvard School of Public Health – Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution

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Facts About Fats

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