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The Facts on Fats

One particular nutrient group that I would like to expand upon today is fats!

For some, the easy answer is to simply try to avoid fats completely from the diet. However, it is important to understand that a small amount of fat is good for us and in fact, essential for our body to survive as fats fulfil a variety of important roles to allow our body to function on a daily basis, such as:

  • Formation of myelin sheath (fatty material surrounding the nerve fibres) within the nervous system

  • Protection of internal organs

  • Formation of cell membranes

  • Helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E & K

  • Plays a major role in determining cholesterol levels

  • Major source of energy and regulates our metabolism

These are just a few reasons why fats should never be completely removed from our diet. The fats that affect our body in different ways are known as unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), saturated fats and trans fats (hydrogenation).

Saturated Fats - come from animal source (meat, poultry and dairy) and some plant foods (palm oil, coconut oil). Foods high in saturated fats include:- fatty cuts of meat, butter, lard, cheese, cream, savoury snacks and chocolate confectionery, biscuits, cakes and pastries. Saturated fats do play an important role, such as enhancing the immune system and liver function as cholesterol is mostly made in the liver from any type of fat we eat, thus should be included in the daily diet. However, eating too much saturated fats increase the risk of raised cholesterol levels, heart disease and stroke and therefore, should only be consumed in small quantities.

Unsaturated Fats - come in two main categories: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Monounsaturated fats can be found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, olive oil, beef dripping and rapeseed oil. Diets high in monounsaturated fats have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (Kris-Etherton et al, 1999). Polyunsaturated fats are considered to be fundamental to our health, otherwise referred to as EFAs (essential fatty acids) as they cannot be produced by the body. The EFAs are omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 (oily fish, cod liver oil, walnut oil, flax oil, hemp seed oil) fatty acids provide the body with many benefits, including reducing inflammation. Sources of omega 6 fatty acids can be found in evening primrose oil, soybean oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. Omega 6 can stimulate inflammatory pathways in the body, hence the recommendation to eat more of omega 3.

Trans Fats - A common processing method known as hydrogenation, during which cheap vegetable oils are converted into solid, spreadable fats (such as margarine and shortening). There is no place in any diet that contains trans fats. There is no use for trans fats in our body and trans fats will slow the body down. So yes, butter is better for you than margarine!

In Summary - cut down on food and drink high in saturated fats and trans fats and replace with some unsaturated fats. Be careful not to consume too much protein and carbohydrates too as any unused energy from protein and carbohydrates will also convert into fats. Not forgetting to cut down on your sugar intake (cakes, biscuits, confectionery, soft drinks and fruit juices). Try to incorporate a balanced diet (all 5 nutrient groups), complemented with some form of physical activity to keep you looking good and feeling great! If you train in a gym try to undertake resistance training a couple of times a week and/or join a group exercise class. Remember, a gram of fat provides 9 kcal of energy, compared with carbohydrates and protein at 4 kcal. I shall talk more about sugars and resistance training on another occasion.

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