This article is my own personal research and should not be taken over advice from a medical professional.
You must have heard it so many times, dietitians and public health messages saying to cut down on fat, especially saturated fat for good heart health. This message is now ingrained into society ; whenever you go to the supermarket everything is labelled as reduced fat, low fat or zero fat but new evidence is coming to light which suggests that most types of fats aren’t really that bad for you and that there are some good fats which can work wonders for your health.
What are healthy fats? Fats can be split up into 4 main groups:
Saturated Fats – Saturated Fats are found predominantly in animal products, however they are also found in large quantities in coconut and most foods will contain at least a small level of them. Public health advice has suggested to cut down on saturated fat and the WHO (World Health Organization) has suggested that saturated fats make up no more than 10% of your calories.
Saturated fats are found in high quantities in foods such as:
- Red meats such as beef and pork
- Processed meats like salami, sausages and bacon
- Coconut products (there is evidence that the saturated fats from plants don’t cause the same problems that saturated fat from animals may cause).
- Poultry (if you buy skinless poultry or don’t eat the skin then you will consume much less)
Polyunsaturated Fats – Sources of polyunsaturated fats include olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds. These types of fats are believed to protect your heart health and 2 of the essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) are types of polyunsaturated fats.
Omega 3 fatty acids
There are three types of omega 3 fats. The two most crucial ones are DHA and EPA: these are found predominantly in certain fish. The other type is called ALA; ALA is from plant sources but the human body can’t use this type of Omega 3 until it converts it into DHA or EPA and humans aren’t very effective at doing this so I would suggest eating at least some sort of fish, taking a DHA and EPA supplement (there are vegan kinds) or eating something that has been fortified with DHA and EPA as well as eating a wide variety of other sources.
Sources of Omega 3:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower (ALA)
- Fatty fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon (DHA and EPA)
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts, pumpkin seeds chia seeds (ALA)
- Algae and seaweed (DHA)
Omega 6 fatty acids
Omega 6 fatty acids are believed to have similar positive effects on the body as omega 3 fats, however you need to eat a mixture of both of them (a ratio of 2x as much omega 6 as omega 3 is seen as ideal) and as omega 6 fats are pro inflammatory it may be a wise move to swap foods high in omega 6 for foods high in omega 3. Despite this, when eaten in moderation omega 6 fats are a healthy thing to eat.
Sources of Omega 6:
- Olive oil (Olive oil has been shown not to cause inflammation despite being predominantly Omega 6)
- Sunflower seeds
- Animal products (but not fish) often have a higher ratio of omega 6 to 3.
- Vegetable oils (Non hydrogenated)
Balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6
Keeping a healthy balance of Omega 6 to 3 is very important to health: as much of the western diet consists of sources of Omega 6 (linoleic acid) it is very important to make sure that you cut down on vegetable oils and make sure to eat enough anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fat. The inflammation caused by the imbalance in consumption of these fats is thought to contribute to problems such as:
Monounsaturated Fats– The main sources of monounsaturated fats are the same as the sources of polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are also believed to play a crucial role in staying healthy and the other 2 of the essential fatty acids (Omega 7 and 9). The body can make these fats from Omega 3s and 6s however it is a good idea to get them from your diet as converting fats inside the body is an inefficient process so for optimum health you should strive to a wide variety of unsaturated fats.
Omega 7 fatty acids
Omega 7 or palmitoleic acid (not palmitic acid which is a type of saturated fat commonly found in palm oil and dairy) is believed to be a very healthy fat that is anti-inflammatory and consuming it has health benefits such as:
- Promoting weight loss
- Lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood
- Improving liver function
- Lowering insulin levels
Sources of Omega 7:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines
- Macadamia nuts
- You can also buy a food supplement called Seabuckthorn oil which is extremely high in it however I would recommend getting palmitoleic acid from other sources
Omega 9 fatty acids
Omega 9 fatty acids carry many health benefits and are believed to be great for heart health as they are thought to lower the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and a higher intake is linked with a lower risk of having a stroke. There is also research that suggests it can boost energy levels and help those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Sources of Omega 9:
- Macadamia nuts
- Olive oil
Hydrogenated or Trans Fats– These types of fat are dangerous. When consumers began to become concerned about the amount of saturated fat they were eating food companies had to find a way of replacing it with a “heart healthy” alternative. They found out that when unsaturated fats were hydrogenated (hydrogen atoms were added) they tasted delicious. These types of fats were also extremely cheap to produce as they would use cheap vegetable oils. According to the WHO: Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Iceland all have legislation which has banned these fats. Trans fats are known to raise the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood and reduce the levels of HDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is commonly known as bad cholesterol whilst HDL cholesterol is known as bad cholesterol. A higher intake of hydrogenated fats is linked to:
- Higher instances of type 2 diabetes
- Being more likely to have a stroke or heart attack
Foods that are high in trans fats
- In some meat and dairy products there are trace amounts of trans fats however there is no string evidence to suggest that these naturally occurring trans fats cause harm.
- Margarine and spreads- check the label. If it says ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ then it is probably best avoided.
- Commercial cookies, cakes, muffins etc.
- Fried processed foods
The key points to take away from this article are:
- Avoid trans fats entirely.
- Watch your intake of saturated fats but remember that there is evidence to suggest that these are not as bad as we thought.
- Make most of your fats poly- and mono- unsaturated.
- Watch your Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio and try to avoid too many products made from vegetable oils.
- Not all fats are bad for your heart – most of them eaten in moderation are actually good for it.
The best sources of healthy fats are:
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
Tips for choosing healthier fats
When cooking I would use recommend using coconut oil, avocado oil or a light olive oil (not extra virgin) as many unsaturated fats will burn when used to cook at high temperatures and may form trans fats.
When buying animal products, choose wild fish over farmed as the feed that the fish are given will mean that they aren’t as high in Omega 3 fats as they would be if they were wild. Choose dairy and beef from grass-fed cows as when they are grass-fed they have a higher omega 3 content.