By Naomi Mead
If you think fat is always one of the bad guys, read on…
Are you confused about fat? You’re certainly not alone. The notion that dietary fat, and in particular saturated fat, is both inherently fattening and increases our risk of heart disease has dominated dietary guidelines for decades. Off the back of a large study 40 years ago claiming to prove a definitive causative link between saturated fat and heart disease, we became a nation of fat-phobes; encouraged to opt for ‘low fat’ and ‘fat-free’ food products to make the perceived ‘healthy’ choice. Butter was vilified, shunned in favour of refined vegetable oils and margarines.
And then, just last year, research emerged that cast doubt on the supposedly rock-solid link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Fat, we were told, had been wrongly vilified. Not guilty of its original conviction. Millions of consumers led to believe that fat content is what they should be scrutinising when scouring food labels have instead been opting for sugar-filled, processed, but supposedly healthy ‘low-fat’ equivalents. And, as a consequence, our intake of both sugar and processed foods have been sharply rising, in correlation with increased rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease. So, where does that leave us, and can we chew the fat to our heart’s content?! Let’s get our fats straight…
Do we need to eat fat?
YES! Fat plays an absolutely crucial role in our health and wellbeing. It provides a concentrated source of energy, and the essential building blocks for every cell in the body. Fat consumption is vital for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and it contains essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) which are required for good cardiovascular and brain health. Fat also improves the taste and texture of food, and is important for satiety.
But won’t it make me put on weight?
If you’re eating the right types of fat, and in moderation, no! In fact, when it comes to weight loss, dietary fat has a crucial role to play; it helps to boost the metabolism and our body’s ability to burn body fat. Yes, that’s right, eating fat can help us to burn fat and lose weight!
So what fats should we avoid?
There is one type of fat that all scientists and health professionals agree should be avoided, and these are the ‘trans’ fats, found in deep-fried foods and many processed foods, bakery products and some margarines. These heat-modified and industrially-modified fats are completely void of nutritional value, and have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. How can you avoid them? By carefully reading the labels on processed foods and looking for the phrases ‘partially hydrogenated’, ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘shortening’ – ingredients that all contain trans fat; and by cutting back on deep-fried and processed foods .
Which fats should we choose then?
This still leaves us with a huge array of fats to choose from, and even for the most health savvy amongst us, it can be confusing to know which ones to choose. The following guide is designed to help you to select the right type of fat for different dishes and cooking methods:
- As a salad dressing – Extra virgin olive oil is the richest source of monounsaturated fat, shown to lower blood pressure and improve heart health. It is also rich in compounds with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Always choose cold-pressed extra virgin which has been extracted from the first pressing of the olives, without the use of heat, yielding the highest levels of these beneficial nutrients. Avoid refined or ‘light’ olive oils, which have often been extracted with solvents, treated with heat or even diluted with cheaper refined oils.
You can also choose – Nut oils such as walnut, almond and flaxseed. These oils provide a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which we know provide a wealth of very important health benefits. Nut and seed oils should never be heated, as these fats are very delicate and will be damaged by heat. For the same reason, always keep refrigerated.
- For curries and stir-fries – Coconut oil. Coconut oil is fantastic for frying because it is resistant to high temperatures, meaning that it doesn’t oxidise and become damaged when heated, and retains all of its nutritional properties. Coconut oil provides a wealth of health benefits. It contains a type of fat termed ‘MCTs’ which are unique in the way they are metabolised – going straight from the digestive tract to the liver, where they provide a quick source of energy for the body and brain. Coconut oil is also rich in lauric acid which has important anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties; important for both digestive and immune support.
- For roasting – Cold-pressed rapeseed oil. Another great cooking oil (and a good alternative if you don’t want a coconut flavour to your cooking!), rapeseed oil can be heated to high temperatures without it smoking or burning and becoming damaged. It is another rich source of monounsaturated fats, and also high in vitamin E, especially important for heart and skin health.
- As a spread – Organic grass-fed butter is a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins A, D, & K. It is also rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to help lower body fat percentage in humans; and a type of fat called butyrate, which supports digestive health.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Cotswold Life magazine.
Naomi Mead is a Cheltenham-based registered nutritional therapist at Food First