Are you puzzled by the great fat debate?
It’s easy to be confused! So should you avoid saturated fat? Ditch the butter? Eat polyunsaturated spreads? Or forget about low-fat options and go for full-fat?
During the latter part of the 20th century, the humble saturated fat was vilified and shunned by nations worldwide as it became maligned as the cause of obesity and heart disease. For centuries natural fats had supported populations but suddenly, due to cherry-picked research, saturated fats, from butter to animal meats were demonised.
In the 1950s, Ancel Keys reported that he had found a positive correlation between increased deaths from cardiovascular disease and the consumption of saturated fat in studies of 7 countries. What he omitted to report was that in studies of an additional 15 countries, whereby some nations were high consumers of saturated fats, no such correlation existed.
However, as a result of his findings, countries and food industries demonised saturated fat with much promotion of a low-fat diet using a reliance on vegetable fats and sugar to replace natural fats.
Despite the low-fat food industry being worth multi-millions annually, there’s been no impact on obesity rates with over 67% of adults and 25% of children aged 5 to 17 in Australia being deemed overweight or obese in 2017/18.
There is so much controversy about good fats and bad fats that at times it can be hard to know what food to eat. But one detail that we cannot ignore is that our bodies need a regular intake of the good quality fats.
Your Body Needs Fats!
Here are just some of the reasons our bodies require us to consume quality fats:
- To provide the building-blocks for many hormones and hormone-like substances.
- The brain is rich in fats, and dietary fats act to regulate processes that impact emotional behaviour.
- To insulate the body and help maintain a safe body temperature.
- To protect the vital organs, the heart and kidneys etc.
- To transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K to the cells.
- For the maintenance of healthy nerves.
- To give structure to the cells in our body.
- To support our cardiovascular health.
- To supply a reserve energy source.
Not all fats are equal however. There are many different types of fat, some are good and some not so good.
Saturated: butter, ghee, cocoa butter, coconut oil, dairy products and animal fats.
Monounsaturated: olives, avocado and many nuts.
Polyunsaturated Omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid is found in linseeds/flaxseeds as well as chia seeds; the body needs to convert this into DHA & EPA which occur naturally in the oils of cold-water fish and marine animals such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines.
Polyunsaturated Omega-6s: a lot of seed or vegetable oils, such as sunflower and sesame seeds fall into this category along with vegetable spreads. Processed foods, from cakes to breakfast cereals tend to have a high content of these fats. Even healthy olives or sundried tomatoes may be served up in a container of vegetable oil.
Unfortunately, the average person generally eats way too many polyunsaturated omega-6s compared to omega-3s; ideally, we need to eat an equal amount but ratios higher than 1: 20 are common due to the reliance on processed foods and marketing spin.
Trans-fatty acids: these arise during the processing of vegetable oils (hydrogenation) into more solid fats that are used in commercially-baked products such as cookies, cakes, crackers, pies and the like to help extend their shelf-life and to provide a certain type of texture or “mouth feel”. They are also present in most of the frying-oils used in fast-food outlets as these are heated repeatedly to high temperatures.
Here are some quality fats to include in your diet:
- Oily fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel and sardines;
- Lean meats and poultry;
- Nuts such as almonds, cashews, brazils and walnuts;
- Organic or free-range eggs (factory-produced eggs are fed a high omega-6 food);
- Grass-reared meat;
- Flaxseeds and chia seeds;
- Butter, ghee and coconut oil;
- Olive oil and extra virgin olive oil (unheated);
- Green leafy veggies.
Some fats to avoid include:
- Margarine and polyunsaturated vegetable spreads and oils;
- Commercial baked goods such as cookies, cakes, pies and crackers;
- Cook-in sauces and pastes;
- Pizza and deep-fried foods;
- Foods from fast-food outlets, whereby the oil is generally reheated and reused on numerous occasions;
- Snack foods such as chips and crisps which are high in acrylamide – a nerve poison that has been linked to cancer in animals;
- Ready-made meals;
- Dips and salad dressings.
There is mounting evidence that these inferior fats are linked to an increasing amount of health issues beyond weight gain – from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and depression.
Eating good quality fats is vital to support your physical and mental wellbeing and if you’d like to find out more and work with a nutritionist, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Beverley Dorgan is a Brisbane Clinical nutritionist with a special interest in how the foods we consume can impact on our mental health from anxiety and depression to OCD and behavioural or learning issues.
- ABS – Australian Bureau of Statistics “National Health Survey: First Results, 2017-18”
- Fernandes MF, Mutch DM, Leri F. The Relationship between Fatty Acids and Different Depression-Related Brain Regions, and Their Potential Role as Biomarkers of Response to Antidepressants. Nutrients. 2017;9(3):298. Published 2017 Mar 17. doi:10.3390/nu9030298
- Gupta MD, Girish MP, Yadav R. The saturated fat Controversy: Finding calmness in chaos. Indian Heart J. 2019;71(3):181-183. doi:10.1016/j.ihj.2019.07.003
- Hamley S. The effect of replacing saturated fat with mostly n-6 polyunsaturated fat on coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):30. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.1186/s12937-017-0254-5
- Linus Pauling Institute https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/
- Zhang AC, MacIsaac RJ, Roberts L, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for improving peripheral nerve health: protocol for a systematic review. BMJ Open. 2018;8(3):e020804. Published 2018 Mar 25. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020804