There Are Several Types Of Fats
Healthy fats have become something of a buzzword in recent years, as the era of low-fat and fat-free diets has passed in favour of options like the keto and Mediterranean diets, both of which advocate a fat-rich diet. But how do you know if a fat is now a healthy option?
“There are different types of dietary fat, often categorised into ‘healthy’ and ‘non-healthy’ fats,” explains nutritional therapist Yasmin Alexander. “The fats we term healthy are unsaturated fats – found abundantly within olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and anchovies. The fats we consider non-healthy are saturated fats, found within butter, ghee and fat on red meat and cheese. Trans fats are another group of fats which have no known health benefits and should be avoided. In some countries such as the US, trans fats are banned.”
Unlike unsaturated fats, which tend to have health benefits, Yasmin explains trans fats have been chemically altered to make the product they are in easier to sell – for example, a packet of biscuits may contain trans fats to make them last longer on the shelves. To avoid them, look out for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on an ingredients list.
It’s All About Finding The Right Balance
“Even though we refer to some fats as healthy and others as less healthy, it’s worth bearing in mind that our bodies still require some of the non-healthy fats, just in much smaller amounts than healthier fats,” Yasmin tells SL.
Emma Bardwell, registered nutritionist and author of The Perimenopause Solution, agrees. “Dietary fats are one of the most divisive topics in nutrition. The current thinking is that while saturated fats aren’t implicated in heart disease to the degree they used to be, they still aren’t a health food. As with everything, it comes down to balance and quality. Get most of your fats from unsaturated sources such as oily fish, olive oil and nuts, and include moderate amounts of saturated fats. The Western diet tends to include far more omega-6 fats (like sunflower oil) than omega-3 fats (like oily fish), and this balance is also important.”
Emma explains that omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties and are essential for brain and heart health whereas omega-6 has the potential to be pro-inflammatory in large amounts. “If you aren’t eating the recommended two portions of oily fish every week, it’s wise to supplement with a high-quality fish oil or a vegan alternative such as algae oil,” Emma advises.
Fats Are Your Body’s Building Blocks
Experts agree healthy fats are a necessary macronutrient. They’re the building blocks of our hormones, brain and nerve tissues, and the protective layer around our cells. They’re used to control inflammation, absorb vital nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K, and help maintain eye health. Fat is also a source of energy, says Emma. “Dietary fat protects your organs, insulates you, makes your sex hormones, keeps blood pressure under control and kickstarts chemical reactions that control growth, immune function and reproduction. When you cut out too much fat, you can deprive your body of essential nutrients. In fact, the key signs you’re not eating enough fat include: rashes and dry, flaky skin; brittle, lacklustre hair; poor immune health; and low levels of vitamins A, D, E and K.”
They’ll Keep You Fuller For Longer
Fatty foods are more filling by nature, Yasmin explains. “They are burned at a slower rate by the body, and consuming fat with carbs will slow down the digestion and release of sugars into the bloodstream, providing you with longer-lasting energy and helping you avoid sugar peaks and slumps throughout the day, which can leave you feeling zapped of energy. In fact, if you feel hungry quickly even after an adequately sized meal, this could be a sign you aren’t eating enough fat.”
Yasmin also says that including healthy fats in the diet could also help you lose a few pounds. “A 2015 study showed that, after one year, people who followed a low-carb, higher-fat diet lost more weight than those following a low-fat diet.”
Not All Oils Were Created Equal
“Coconut oil is often regarded as a superfood, but there’s little scientific data to back any positive health claims,” says Yasmin. “Coconut oil is a saturated fat, and studies have shown it can raise levels of LDL cholesterol (the less healthy type) and it’s therefore recommended to consume it in moderation, rather than adding spoonfuls to your morning coffee. If you enjoy the flavour in cooking then go ahead, but if you bought it for its health benefits then you may be better off using olive oil, which is an unsaturated fat prized for its health-promoting substances called polyphenols.” Experts agree olive oil wins on the health front – not only is it rich in antioxidants, but it also actively lowers blood cholesterol.
Spread Your Intake Throughout The Day
“Yes, you need some fats in the diet, but you also need carbs and protein. Balance isn’t a sexy message but it’s the best nutrition approach to have – enjoy a bit of everything in moderation,” says Emma. “Get most of your dietary fat from unsaturated sources most of the time. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy some saturated fats, just make sure most of the time the majority of what you eat is from unsaturated sources like oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds. It’s also worth pointing out fats are high in energy, with one tablespoon containing around 120 calories, so it’s all about moderation. Spread your intake throughout the day and have some fats with each meal – add a tablespoon of peanut butter to your smoothie or have a couple of eggs with your avocado toast. This will make your meal more robust, stabilise blood sugar levels and make you less likely to reach for snacks to keep you going.”
And when it comes to portion size, Yasmin says it depends on the food, but a portion of nuts is roughly a small handful, a serving of oily fish is around 140g when cooked, and when using oils for dressings, around one teaspoon per serving is a helpful guide.
The Options Are Endless
“Despite the positive messaging about the benefits of healthy fats, many women are still fearful of eating fats, even the healthy ones,” says Yasmin. “This may be coming from a calorie counting perspective, as fat contains over two times more calories per gram than carbs and protein. However, this doesn’t take into consideration that the body needs healthy fats – they are essential and will keep your body in optimal condition.”
If you’re looking for simple ways to increase your intake, Yasmin recommends adding chia seeds to porridge and smoothies, or making chia seed pudding with three tablespoons of chia seeds to 100ml milk and two tablespoons of yoghurt. “Use tahini as a dressing for salads and roasted vegetables; or mash avocado with red onion, chili, lime juice and coriander to serve with toast, crackers and eggs. Snacking on nuts is also a great idea – walnuts specifically are rich in omega-3 unsaturated fats. A small handful with a piece of fruit is a fantastic addition to the diet.”
Emma, meanwhile, recommends adding frozen avocado to smoothies, drizzling extra virgin olive oil over salads, having a couple of squares of dark chocolate for pudding, or making a mackerel pate with full fat yogurt.
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