You don't need to eliminate all fat from your diet. In fact, some fats actually help promote good health. But it's wise to choose the healthier types of dietary fat and then enjoy them — in moderation.
There are numerous types of fat. Your body makes its own fat from taking in excess calories. Some fats are found in foods from plants and animals and are known as dietary fat. Dietary fat is a macronutrient that provides energy for your body.
Fat is an essential nutrient with a host of important functions within the body. It is essential for supplying the body with omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids, producing healthy cell membranes and maximising the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble antioxidants (such as lycopene and beta-carotene). Fat is found in many foods and comes from both animal and vegetable sources.
But fat is energy-dense, meaning it contains a lot of energy (kilojoules/calories) in a small quantity (37kJ/g), making it easy to eat more than we need. If you eat more calories than you need, you will gain weight. Excess weight is linked to poor health. In addition, some types of dietary fat are thought to play a role in cardiovascular disease.
Research about the possible harms and benefits of dietary fat is always evolving. And a growing body of research suggests that when it comes to dietary fat, you should focus on eating healthy fats and avoiding unhealthy fats.
Harmful dietary fat
There are two main types of potentially harmful dietary fat:
· Saturated fat. This is a type of fat that comes mainly from animal sources of food, such as red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
· Trans fat. This is a type of fat that occurs naturally in some foods in small amounts. But most trans fats are made from oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. These partially hydrogenated trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Most fats that have a high percentage of saturated fat or that contain trans fat are solid at room temperature. Because of this, they're typically referred to as solid fats. They include beef fat, pork fat, butter, shortening and stick margarine.
Healthier dietary fat
The types of potentially helpful dietary fat are mostly unsaturated:
· Monounsaturated fatty acids. This is a type of fat found in a variety of foods and oils. Studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. Research also shows that these fatty acids may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.
· Polyunsaturated fatty acids. This is a type of fat found mostly in plant-based foods and oils. Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. These fatty acids may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.
· Omega-3 fatty acids. One type of polyunsaturated fat is made up of mainly omega-3 fatty acids and may be especially beneficial to your heart. Omega-3, found in some types of fatty fish, appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, it hasn't yet been determined whether replacements for fish oil — plant-based or krill — have the same health effects as omega-3 fatty acid from fish.
Foods made up mostly of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil and corn oil.
Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed (ground), oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean), and nuts and other seeds (walnuts, butternuts and sunflower).
Which fats and how much?
Common food sources for each type of fat
Types of Fat
Source of Fat
Butter, cheese, meat fat, meat products (sausages, hamburgers), full-fat milk and yoghurt, pies, pastries, biscuits, cakes, lard, dripping, hard margarines and baking fats, coconut and palm oil.
Olive oil, canola oil, nuts (pistachio, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, cashew, pecan, peanut) and the oils from these nuts, avocados, avocado oil, lean meat
Long chain Omega-3 polyunsaturated: Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout), Alpha linolenic acid from walnuts, lean red meat, canola oil, soybean, flax seed, and their oils. Omega-6 polyunsaturated: sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame, walnuts, soybean, corn and their oils. Certain margarines.
Certain margarines, shortenings, biscuits, baked goods
· All fat contains the same number of kilojoules/calories, regardless of which type of fat it contains. So use fats and oils sparingly if you are watching your weight.
· Use low-fat cooking methods such as grilling, baking and microwaving instead of frying to reduce the amount of fat and oil.
· Compare labels to choose lower-fat products – a food is considered low in fat if the total fat level less than 10g/100g (or 10%). Choose foods that have a low proportion of saturated fat compared to total fat – the rest will be made up of the healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats.
· Easy ways to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat is by choosing low-fat milk or yoghurt and lean cuts of meat, removing any visible fat from meat and skin from chicken, and choosing margarine and vegetable oils (such as olive and canola oils or spreads) rather than butter.
· Some oils break down when they are cooked at high temperatures. For frying, use canola, sesame, peanut or rice bran oils. Olive oils are best on salads and for low-temperature cooking.
· Snack smart. Many popular processed snack foods are high in fat, especially solid fats. Be sure to check food labels for saturated fat. Better yet, snack on whole fruits and vegetables.
· Visit the Heart Foundation NZ at www.heartfoundation.org.nzfor information on fat and heart health
What about very low-fat diets?
If watching fat content is a good strategy, is it even better to try to eliminate all fat from your diet? No.
First, your body needs some fat, the healthy fats, to function normally. If you try to avoid all fat, you risk getting insufficient amounts of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids.
Also, in attempting to remove fat from your diet, you may wind up eating too many processed foods touted as low-fat or fat-free rather than healthier and naturally lower fat foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Instead of doing away with fat in your diet, enjoy healthy fats in moderation.
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