Dietary fat explained: the good, the bad and the ugly

3rd November 2016
Cheesy potato pancakes fat

There’s often a lot of conflicting information in the media about dietary fat. Here our dietitian Monika outlines the facts, so you can make informed choices on the types and quantities of fat in your diet.

Fat is one of our main energy sources, but it also helps us to absorb vitamins, as well as playing a major role in cholesterol levels. To function well our heart prefers to use fat than carbohydrate for energy (unlike the brain, which prefers carbs – glucose in fact).

The main types of fat are saturated, unsaturated and trans-saturated. According to the Food Standard Agency, up to 35% of our total daily energy should come from fat. This should consist of no more than 11% saturated fat, 6.5% polyunsaturated fat, 13% monounsaturated fat, and 2% trans-saturated fatty acids.

Saturated fat: It’s not all bad

Saturated fat often gets a particularly bad rap in the media. But despite its reputation, it has a huge number of important uses in the body, including hormone regulation and immune function. It also has antiviral, antiplaque and antifungal properties that may help to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And it regulates gene expression in ways that could help to halt the development of cancer cells. Certain types assist the production of omega-3 fatty acids (an unsaturated fat important for brain development), and some can lower a certain type of “bad” cholesterol while others can raise a certain type of “good” cholesterol.

Saturated fat can be found in animal products such as butter, ghee, lard, meat and other dairy. But it’s also contained in some plant products such as coconut, palm oil and cacao butter.

While we don’t want to take in too much of any nutrient, saturated fat is a very important part of a healthy diet.

Unsaturated fat: Absolutely essential

Our bodies can’t make all unsaturated fats themselves – some of them can only be obtained through diet. While mainly found in plant-derived fats, they are also in oily fish and grass-fed animal products. There are two types: polyunsaturated fatty acids, found in vegetable, nut and seed oils, and monounsaturated fatty acids, found in peanut, olive and canola oils.

Both types have some well-known health benefits, including lowering “bad” cholesterol levels and raising “good” cholesterol levels. Omega 3, an unsaturated fat, as mentioned above, has anti-inflammatory and brain boosting properties.

Trans-saturated fat: Worth avoiding

Trans-saturated fats are formed during food processing to make foods solidify. This process, known as hydrogenation, makes foods that stay fresh for longer, therefore increasing shelf life.

The result of the hydrogenation process is a completely unnatural fat that can cause dysfunction in our bodies and increase the risk of heart disease. Processed foods, such as hard margarines and vegetable shortening, sweets, crisps and chocolates are high in trans fats.

All types of natural fat are part of a healthy balanced diet, though we’d recommend you try to limit processed trans fats, which aren’t natural and have a detrimental affect on our health. Eliminating highly processed foods is the easiest way to do this.

So how about getting in the kitchen with Cook&Count to rustle up some tasty unprocessed meals that give you all the benefits of saturated and unsaturated fats!