Fats - the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
For many years fat has been demonised and we are led to believe that it is bad for us. Because of the bad press it has received, we have become a 'fat phobic' nation and instead often choose foods labelled as 'low fat'. Evidence now shows that this concept is flawed, particularly as 'low fat' products often contain high amounts of sugar instead to provide the flavour that has been stripped out. Excess sugar is known to lead to inflammation in the body and can lead to chronic disease.
So what sort of fat is healthy? It can be very confusing as there are so many different types of fats. Fats vary depending on the type and amount of fatty acid they contain and can be:
Saturated fats are found in meat, full fat dairy products, coconut oil and palm oil. High amounts of saturated fats are not recommended, particularly in animal fats like bacon and sausages, whereas coconut oil would be a more healthy option.
Trans fats are often found hiding in processed foods such as ready meals and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are damaging to our body and known to be associated with an increased risk of serious illness such as heart disease and some cancers.
Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, olives, olive oil and avocado. These are good for heart health as they support good cholesterol (HDL) and lower bad cholesterol (LDL). They are also known to decrease our risk of developing diabetes or cancer.
Polyunsaturated fats can also be known as omega 6 (linoleic acid) and omega 3 (alphalinoleic acid). These are both essential fatty acids (EFAs) which cannot be made in our body and so we need to source them from foods.
However, these EFAs need to be in the correct ratio. A Western diet is typically unhealthy as it contains too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 which can cause damage in the body. The issue with Western diets is that they tend to rely heavily on large quantities of processed sunflower and corn oils, margarine and grain-fed meat.
Omega 3 fats are broken down into three sub-types:
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
ALA (alphalinolenic acid)
The best absorbed form of DHA and EPA omega 3 fatty acids is found in high quantities in oily fish (use the acronym SMASH = sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring), or in marine algae such as seaweed.
Plant-based omega 3 fatty acids contain ALA and can be found in foods like nuts and seeds but this needs to be converted into DHA and EPA to be used in the body and this isn't a very efficient process so demands a lot of energy. Because of this, it is unlikely that you will be able to get enough omega 3 from a plant-based diet alone.
This is worth bearing in mind if you are vegetarian, vegan or just don't eat enough oily fish as you should consider using a supplement.
But why do we need fats?
Healthy fats like omega 3 are a great source of energy for our body but they are also used to make up the fatty membranes that surround and protect all of our body cells. This membrane is made up of fats, cholesterol and protein (called the phospholipid bilayer).
They are crucial for good vision, heart and brain health as well as many other functions in the body, such as manufacturing hormones which help to regulate inflammation.
Book a Nutritional Therapy consultation to make sure you are eating the right types of fats in your diet and for professional advice on omega 3 supplementation!
Reference/sources available on request.