The lowdown on fats and oils

What should I consume for my health, what should I avoid, and what should I cook with?

Jess Childs
Jess Childs
Tuesday 10 May 2022

Some fats and oils have great health benefits, but some can be damaging to our long term health; whether we consume them hot or cold can also influence how healthy they are. Here’s some advice to help you navigate this food group.

Why do we need fats in the diet?

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Fats play a major role in our body. Our brain is 60% fat, and we need certain fats to ensure this functions optimally. Fats are our ‘vehicle’ for absorbing vitamins A, D, E and K. Without fats, we wouldn’t absorb these vital nutrients which support immunity, eye health, blood clotting etc.

Fats are used to manufacture hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone, cortisol and aldosterone (for fluid and mineral balance), and to facilitate a healthy immune function.

Fats also make up the cell membrane of cells in the body; the type of fat used here can influence the health of the cell. Moreover, fat protects organs, provides energy to the body and influences the health of neurons.

All in all, very essential! But it is important that we consume the ‘right’ type of fat. There are 3 main groups of fats: saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. The omegas (Omega-3 and 6) sit within the unsaturated category.

For optimal health, your diet should follow these guidelines:

  • Eat unsaturated fat, and particularly Omega-3, regularly
  • Good quality saturated fat can be enjoyed in moderation
  • Trans fats should be avoided

Keep reading for foods which fit into these categories.

What fats should I eat?

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are the most healthy, and can be enjoyed regularly. These include nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and eggs. Omega-3s are an important sub-category within unsaturated fats which are essential in the diet. These include oily fish (salmon, anchovies, mackerel and sardines), and nuts and seeds (chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds).

Omega-3 fats play an important role in regulating inflammation, which in turn can reduce disease risk for conditions such as arthritis and heart disease.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats can be included in moderation in the diet. They come in 2 forms: vegetable and animal. Vegetable forms include coconut based products such as coconut oil and coconut milk, and animal forms include butter, cheese, yogurt, ghee and meat products such as chicken, beef and lamb.

Adding fat to your diet

You should try and include a portion of healthy fat with each meal, choosing unsaturated more regularly than saturated fats.

  • Breakfast: nuts and seeds on porridge or eggs with toast and grilled tomatoes.
  • Lunch: sardines on toast, soup with a drizzle of olive oil, bread with butter or jacket potato with avocado.
  • Dinner: fish pie, pasta with feta, vegetable and olive oil, mexican bowl with chicken and guacamole, or spaghetti bolognese with organic beef and wholewheat spaghetti.

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What fats should I avoid?

Trans fat should be avoided as much as possible. Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fats, but can be harmful for health because they have been ‘chemically altered’.

Otherwise known as hydrogenated vegetable oils, these have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Studies also indicate that trans fats increase inflammatory markers.

Trans fats are mainly found in processed foods, given that they ‘prolong’ shelf life. Foods include packaged cookies, cakes, crisps, pizzas, ready meals, sausages rolls and processed meats such as salami, bacon and ham. Margarine also contains trans fat, labelled as hydrogenated vegetable oil.

The best way to reduce trans fats is to avoid processed foods and eat foods in their ‘natural state’. ‘Trans fat’ is listed on a food label under ‘Total Fat’, so it’s easy to check for. The ingredients list will list an ingredient such as hydrogenated vegetable oil or fat. Keep an eye out for this!

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What fats are safe to cook with?

The two properties which impact how healthy or toxic an oil is when heated are its smoke point and oxidative stability.

Generally speaking, the more saturated a fat the more stable it is when heated e.g. butter. The unsaturated oils, e.g. olive and nut oils, will become oxidised and produce free radicals at high temperatures; free radicals in the body can damage DNA and cells.

The smoke point of an oil describes what temperature it starts burning. This is dictated by its chemical formation, as well as other factors such as the quality of the oil and its refinement. For example, sunflower oil is often very refined, and hence possesses no health benefits. Saturated fats tend to have higher smoke points.

Given the above, it is therefore best to cook with butter, ghee and coconut oil. Avoid heating olive oil and avocado oil - these are best drizzled on the food cold.