What are fats for?

Fat is good for you! Eating the right kind and amount is vital for optimal health. The human brain is 60 per cent fat and one-third of this should come from essential fats to achieve full potential for health and happiness.

Fats provide a concentrated source of energy in the diet; they are the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormone substances. In addition, they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K. They are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A and for mineral absorption.

Essential fats reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, eczema, and infections. People who are fat-phobic are depriving themselves health-giving nutrients and increase the risk of poor health. Most people eat too much saturated and trans-fat, the kind that kills, and too little of the essential fats, the kinds that heal.

Different types of fats

There are several different types of fats, each made up of units known as fatty acids. Most foods contain a mixture of fats but are categorized according to the type found in the largest amount. Let’s look at these below:

1. Saturated fat

Saturated fats are simply fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. Our body makes saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates and they are normally found in animal fats, dairy products and tropical oils. You do not need them, although they can be used by the body to make energy.

Cholesterol and saturated fat

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all the cells. The liver produces most of cholesterol to make hormones, bile salts, and make body to properly use vitamin D. It’s carried in the blood as:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – Known as “bad” cholesterol only when its oxidized, because it delivers cholesterol to tissues and is strongly associated with the buildup of artery-clogging plaque.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – Known as “good” cholesterol as they remove cholesterol from circulation and from artery walls and return it to the liver for excretion.

Saturated or not?

Saturated fats can be good for your health. They constitute 50% of the cell membranes, make calcium incorporate into skeletal structure effectively, protect liver from toxins and enhance immune system. However, too much saturated fats in the diet could raise LDL cholesterol in the blood, which would increase the risk to coronary heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular disease.

Foods high in saturated fat

Fatty cuts of meat, meat products, butter, lard, cheese, palm oil, coconut oil, dairy products, cream

2. Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats are fat molecules which there are one or more double bond in the fatty acid chain. They are liquid at room temperature and classified as “healthy” fats. They can be divided into polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, predominantly found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fishes. Polyunsaturated fats are essential nutrients because they cannot not synthesize by human body.

Monounsaturated fat

Monounsaturated fat is fatty acid with one double bond in the fatty acid chain with the remainder single-bonded. Like saturated fats, they are relatively stable. They do not go rancid easily and hence can be used in cooking. The benefits of this type of fats including:

  • Reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Anti-inflammatory properties that contribute to the overall health
  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Help body use its fat properly
  • Allow bones to absorb calcium efficiently
Foods high in monounsaturated fat

Olives, olive oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts, cashews

What are fats for
Polyunsaturated fat

Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of double bonds. They are essential fats that body needs for brain function and cell growth. The two polyunsaturated fatty acids found most frequently in our foods are double unsaturated linoleic acid called omega-6 and triple unsaturated linolenic acid called omega-3. Due to the chemical structure, they tend to become oxidized or rancid when subjected to heat as in cooking process, which cause oxidative stress and damage cells. The way to eat polyunsaturated fat is crucial and the benefits of this type of fats including:

  • Reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol
  • Anti-inflammatory properties that contribute to the overall health
  • Control blood sugar and reduce the risk of diabetes
  • Improve immune function and metabolism
  • Improve vision and brain function
Foods high in Omega-3 fat

Flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, fish oil

Foods high in Omega-6 fat

Sunflower oil, corn, pumpkin, sesame, soya, wheat germ, grape seed oil

The dangers of trans fat

Refining and processing vegetable oils can change the nature of the polyunsaturated oil. To turn vegetable oil into hard fat by a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenated oils became a mainstay in restaurants and the food industry – for frying, baked goods, and processed snack foods and margarine.

Because of their chemical structure, trans fats are hard for your body to metabolize. Since your body can’t really use them, they sit in the fat tissues around the body, hindering its ability to efficiently break down and use other proteins or fats that could help keep it running. As a result, trans fats have been found to raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol, create inflammation and contribute to insulin resistance, which increase the risk to have type 2 diabetes, stroke, or heart attack.

How much fat do you need?

The ideal amount of fats in total calorie intake should be no more than 20 per cent. Most authorities now agree that no more than one-third of total fat intake should be saturated fat, and at least one-third should be polyunsaturated fats or oils.

Fat figures of total 20 per cent:

  • 3.5 per cent Omega 6
  • 3.5 per cent Omega 3
  • 7 per cent monounsaturated fat
  • 6 per cent saturated fat

General guidelines for getting fats in the diet:

  • Eat seeds and nuts – chia, flax, hemp, sunflower and sesame.

  • Eat cold-water carnivorous fish – herring, mackerel, salmon, sardine and tuna.

  • Use pumpkin seed butter as spread, instead of butter or margarine.

  • Minimize intake of fried food, processed food and saturated fat from meat and dairy products.

Recommended products (How we choose, see product ratings)