Like the word carbohydrates, the word fat is full of contention but also stigma. And just like carbs, fat is a nutrient that many fad diets have pushed us to avoid in order to lose weight fast.
Fat has received a bad reputation because of the lack of understanding of what our bodies need and a superficial idea of what being healthy means.
Although we know that consuming too much fat is not good for our health, the word fat, especially in relation to our bodies, is still misunderstood: not all fat is bad for us; some fats are in fact extremely good for us. Eating healthy fat in the right quantities can help our overall health in many different ways.
Because there has been a significant rise in these fat-free diets, many food products in the last 20 years have removed fat entirely and, for flavour, added sugar. Even more recently, due to further focus on the effects of consuming too much sugar, sweeteners now replace sugar. These sweeteners are often created synthetically. Consequently, certain foods and diets are left depleted of nutrients.
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Saturated and Unsaturated Fat
Things have started to shift, however, with the now accepted and omnipresent notion of ‘good’ or ‘essential’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. This helps separate saturated fats, found in foods such as meat and dairy-based products that can cause high cholesterol and weight gain, increasing our risk of heart attack and stroke, and unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds and vegetable oils that can help fight against these diseases.
Although it is difficult to remove saturated fat from our diets entirely (a small amount of saturated fat is likely to be found in foods otherwise high in unsaturated fats) we can make a conscious effort to avoid food with a high percentage of unsaturated fat. This is something that the UK government's Eatwell Guide does not make very clear.
So let’s try and understand the real differences between saturated or ‘bad’ fats and unsaturated or ‘good’ fats.
To start with, saturated fat is solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated is liquid. Both fats are made up of bonds but what sets them apart are the double bonds found in unsaturated fatty acids compared to the single bonds in saturated fatty acids.
As highlighted earlier, saturated fat is found in much higher quantities in foods such as meat, cheese, eggs, milk and butter or, put more simply, any foods derived from animals. That being said, unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils can be turned in to saturated fats through a process called Hydrogenation, which creates trans-fatty acids. This process means that foods can have a longer shelf life and most often found in processed foods such as cakes, pastry and biscuits.
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In comparison, unsaturated fatty acids or ‘essential’ fats come from vegetable sources and oily fish. Nuts, seeds and avocados are also great sources of unsaturated fats and although we are often told to consume oily fish to obtain the fatty acids, omega 3 and 6, what is less well known is that foods such as walnuts, chia, hemp, and pumpkins seeds (plant-based options) also contain these fatty acids. Therefore, if you are a conscious eater, you have many alternatives to eating fish for these essential fatty acids.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fat
You may have also heard about two terms associated with unsaturated fats called monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat.
The difference between these two fats is down to their bonds. A fatty acid chain containing only one double bond is monounsaturated but more than one double bond means it is polyunsaturated.
But what does this slight difference in unsaturated fat actually mean for our health? Not that much really. It is more about which foods contain which type of fat.
We can find more monounsaturated fats in foods such as peanut butter, certain cooking oils and avocadoes whereas nuts, for example, are richer in polyunsaturated fats. Both fats are under the same unsaturated fat banner and are extremely good for us in the right quantity. If we eat a variation of these types of foods, they can help protect our organs and keep our bodies healthy.
Oil for Cooking
To delve a little deeper into fats, we need to talk about oil. There is a wealth of information online about whether oil is good for us, and there are now plenty of recipes and ideas to avoid oil altogether. However, go anywhere outside of the home and finding food without oil is virtually impossible.
So, should we try to avoid oil altogether?
Generally, with oils, there are two types: refined and unrefined cooking oil. Unrefined oils occur naturally and contain antioxidant polyphenols, they have processed with minimal heat, usually cold and better for our health. Therefore, these oils are good for us in moderation. Oils labelled raw, or virgin are the best choices when it comes to our overall health.
Refined oils, however, use much more heat for extraction and usually go through more than one process before being bleached or deodorised. The refining process can strip away essential nutrients but are usually better for cooking under extreme heat. This is the type of oil used in the junk food we consume and, therefore, one of the reasons why these foods are so bad for us.
The oils restaurants use are normally chosen based on the taste they want to create and the cooking process they use, so we can’t always be sure the meals we order are as a healthy as we would like them to be.
If making healthy choices is the main focus, try to avoid oil when cooking at home, use water when frying but make sure to use a good non-stick pan or wok. When baking, consider using fruit puree to replace oil.
When eating out, choose dishes that could contain little or no oil or make dining out more of a treat instead of something that is done every day.
Keeping a Healthy Balance
Despite the obvious health benefits of avoiding saturated fats, it is not necessary to completely avoid them or even possible to do so. We may choose to consume meat and dairy, but we need to be conscious of the health risks attached to these foods and limit meat and dairy intake when possible. This is especially true when it comes to processed meat such as bacon, deli and cured meats as these are now classed as carcinogens due to the nitrates they contain.
Even healthy foods needs to be eaten in moderation and when it comes to the conversation around fat, essential unsaturated fats are high in calories so the quantity is also important. Saturated should be avoided where possible on a daily basis.
For example, nuts are packed with fat and essential vitamins and minerals but if we consume too much, the extra calories can be stored as excess fat.
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One thing to take away: fat is not the enemy, it is how we consume it that counts. When it comes to our diets, having small amounts of unsaturated fat throughout the day will keep our bodies functioning at their best. This, coupled with moderate exercise throughout the week will also help keep our hearts and minds strong.
If in doubt, check the labels on packaging. It is not always easy to find the right nutritional advice online as there are many conflicting arguments about what is good for us and what is not. When it comes to fat, however, the difference between saturated and unsaturated is a good place to start.
Knowing the difference and required quantities will make a real difference whether it is to lose weight or be more conscious of the natural benefits of food and general wellbeing.
Read more about fruit and vegetables in the diet here.
Read more about dairy in the diet here.