What are fats?
Fats fall into 3 categories, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. It is interesting to note that nearly all foods contain a mixture of all 3 of these fats.
Butter for example is 52% saturated fat, 21% monounsaturated fat and 3% polyunsaturated fat, with olive oil being 14% saturated fat, 73% monounsaturated fat and 8% polyunsaturated fat.
Interestingly even spinach contains a balance of all 3 types of fat with 0.1% saturated fat, 0.1% monounsaturated fat and 0.5% polyunsaturated fat.
In the not too distant past all fats were considered unhealthy in high amounts with everything from nuts and avocados to butter and milk being criticised.
Emerging evidence paints a very different story about the potential health benefits and health hazards of fats, with much of the popular advice about fats being shown to be highly inadequate.
Why do they matter to me?
Fats are key components of your cell membranes, protect your nervous system and are a rich source of energy. Fat in the diet also enables the absorption of vital fat soluble vitamins and health supporting phytochemicals.
Some fats have health benefits and some have health harming properties, we now need to know which fats are good for us, which are bad, and the balance we need between the various types of fat to maximise our health and wellbeing.
Processed fats are fats that undergo industrial processes before being used in refined oils and processed food.
Artificial trans fats (the adding of hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to solidify them) have now been conclusively shown to have health harming properties and are now largely being removed from processed food manufacturing and vegetable oil spreads.
There is also evidence that the super heating of oils (both to extend shelf life and in cooking), such as sunflower, soy and corn oil which are high in polyunsaturated fats, releases harmful toxins.
The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is now thought to be far too high in the western diet at around 15:1 or higher, contributing to a number of chronic disease states. Experts recommend a ratio of 4:1 as being optimal for good health.
The very high consumption of omega 6 is coming from vegetable oils/fats like corn, soya and sunflower which are high in polyunsaturated fat.
Results from some studies show evidence that there are neutral or beneficial effects of saturated fat when combined with recommended levels of omega 3 in the diet.
Monounsaturated fat is credited as a major contributor to the health benefits of the 'Mediterranean diet' (lower heart disease for example) with olive oil being the prime source of monounsaturated fat in this diet. This has lead to experts advising to increase our intake of good olive oil.
Olive oil is also much more stable at high temperatures leading to advice to use this in place of corn, soya or sunflower oil for cooking.
There is much conflicting opinion about saturated fat and its health benefits or health harming properties.
There is now evidence that saturated fat does not increase your risk of heart disease .
Some experts now say that "fat does not make you fat" and in fact the opposite may be true!
The modern advice is to avoid trans fats, not to worry too much about saturated fat, decrease your intake of omega 6 from vegetable oils, increase your intake of monounsaturated fats from olive oil and nuts, and increase your intake of omega 3 from fish or nut and seed sources.
There are links below to the various arguments if you want to find out more.
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