Again, thanks to society, the word ’fat’ immediately triggers an undesirable reaction within us. No one wants to be fat right!? Well truth is, no one is fat, we have fat, but we are not fat. Just like we have toenails, but we are not toenails. With this in mind we are often surprised to learn that dietary fats are an important factor in the maintenance of human health.
The primary function of fats in the body is to supply continuous energy. Think of fats as our second reserve tank. It is another source of stored energy. We use this during sleeping, low periods of energy intake and during physical activity. Fats also provide insulation to the body as well as the fatty acids required for hormonal regulators.
Why is all this important? Well most people are unaware of the importance of fat, they simply relate fat in the diet to a fat gain in the body. Obviously the amount of excess fat our body carries is a concern for all sorts of health and aesthetic reasons, however dietary fat is different to the fat we identify as weight gain, therefore it is important to understand the importance of fat and what fats to consume for health benefits.
The classification of dietary fats vary based on their chemical makeup or degree of saturation. There are fats we need in our diet for health purposes and there are fats that should be avoided as they hinder our health.
Here is a quick summary of fat classifications:
Saturated fats - Saturated fat is a type of fat found in foods such as the visible fat on meat and chicken, butter, cream and full fat dairy products, and in plant foods like palm and coconut oil. Although not bad for you in small amounts, high intakes of most saturated fatty acids are linked to poor cholesterol and reduced insulin sensitivity. So, how do we identify saturated fats in our diet? After cooking bacon, have a look at the grease in the pan after it has has cooled. Its firmness is a hint that bacon is high in saturated fat. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats - Unsaturated fats are considered the ‘healthy’ fats and are encouraged as part of a healthy diet. These fats help reduce heart disease, lower cholesterol levels and have other health benefits when they replace saturated fats in the diet. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Healthy unsaturated fats come in two main forms, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These differ in their chemical structure and have slightly different health benefits as a result.
•Monounsaturated fats - Food sources of monounsaturated fats include things like, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts and avocados. Replacing unhealthy saturated fats with monounsaturated fats has a cholesterol lowering effect.
•Polyunsaturated fats - Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into two main groups known as omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats. They have been shown to be protective against heart disease as they help lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels, blood pressure and also have anti-inflammatory benefits. Food sources of polyunsaturated fats include oily fish and plant sources such as linseed/flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.
Trans fats - These are the fats that should be avoided. They are chemically manufactured fats that are produced by the food industry through a process called hydrogenation, usually to increase the shelf life of processed foods. Trans fats are thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease even more so than saturated fats. Long term consumption of trans fats have also been associated with obesity, diabetes and chronic inflammatory diseases. Trans fats are easily avoided by eliminating processed and pre packaged foods from your diet.