Use low fat dairy. Give up butter. Stay away from margarine. Limit saturated fat intake. Use olive oil. Today’s fat messages seem to be forever changing and causing confusion amongst consumers.
The reason behind all the confusion about dietary fat is due to its complexity. Dietary fat refers to several kinds of fats all with its own function. Some fats support health whereas others damage it, and foods typically provide a mixture of fats in varying proportions. It took decades for researchers to determine the different effects that the diverse kinds of fats have on health. Translating these findings into dietary recommendations is challenging as too little information may be misleading, and too much detail may be overwhelming to the public. As research around fats evolve, recommendations are becoming refined and more specific. A few years ago, the recommendation around fat was to lower total fat in general, but more recently we’ve learned to limit saturated and trans-fat specifically. Then fad diets popped up where emphasis was put on building the diet on saturated fats. This is where so many consumers got confused. It is important to understand that any “dietary recommendation” out there is not trustworthy unless supported by studies and backed by sound evidence. Years of controlled trials have showed that the intake of saturated fats are linked to heart disease. Any statement or claim made that contradicts decades of clear evidence should be questioned rather than accepted.
Dietary fats can be categorized into saturated fats and unsaturated oils. Guidelines for fats may vary as certain health conditions may increase or decrease the need for the different kind of fats. For a healthy person, the recommended intake of fat from total energy is between 20 – 35%. People should aim not to exceed 10% of total energy from saturated fats. A high intake of saturated fat is linked to an increased risk for heart disease as it raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are usually derived from animal products and palm oil and coconut oil and is solid or semi-solid at room temperature. We generally get saturated fat from a healthy balanced diet; therefore, you shouldn’t deliberately add cream, butter, etc. to your diet. For example: Based on a 2000kCal diet, 10% (20g) is equal to about a small portion of roast beef, a cup of low-fat milk, and a small portion of cheese, and 1 egg, all in one day.
Unsaturated oils can be categorized into Mono-unsaturated and Poly-unsaturated oils. Mono-unsaturated oils are present in avocado, almonds, cashews, canola and olive oil, olives, and peanuts and peanut butter. Monounsaturated fats can help reduce LDL levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Recent studies have also shown a positive effect of mono-unsaturated oils on insulin function which is beneficial to people with type 2 Diabetes.
Omega-3 fatty acids (which is poly-unsaturated) are essential as your body can’t produce them. Common foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, pilchards, fresh tuna, mackerel), fish oils, flax seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, and walnuts. Omega-3s are known for its various health benefits, to name a few: It has anti-inflammatory properties, it can lower elevated triglyceride levels which may help prevent heart disease, and it is crucial in vision and neurological development.
And then there is trans fats. This type of fat occurs naturally in some foods in small amounts. But most trans fats are made from oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. This process is generally used to produce margarine, but hydrogenated oils are also present in stock cubes, baking, soup and sauce powders, etc. Partially hydrogenated trans fats can increase total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, but lower HDL cholesterol. This can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
What do we know so far and how can I optimize my fat intake? A simple rule is to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat where possible:
- Replace meat with omega-3 rich fish at least twice – three times per week.
- Use canola oil (at higher temperatures) and olive oil (at lower temperatures) in cooking instead of butter / shortening / coconut oil.
- Substitute margarine (high in trans fats due to hydrogenation) with mashed avocado, peanut butter, or a brush of olive oil.
- Snack on nuts and fruit instead of crisps and fatty biltong.
- Use low fat or fat free dairy where possible.
Does all this mean that we could never have our favourite ice cream, chocolate brownies, cream cappuccino, and chicken pie anymore? Famous French chef Julia Child explains moderation:
An imaginary shelf labelled INDULGENCES is a good idea. It contains the best butter, jumbo-sized eggs, heavy cream, marbled steaks, sausages and pâtés, hollandaise and butter sauces, French butter-cream fillings, gooey chocolate cakes, and all those lovely items that demand disciplined rationing. Thus, with these items high up and almost out of reach, we are ever conscious that they are not everyday foods. They are for special occasions, and when that occasion comes, we can enjoy every mouthful.
- Julia Child, The Way to Cook, 1989
Many thanks for Melissa Ludick for the contribution.