Busting the fat myth
It’s understandable that fat has such a bad name. After all, it is a word commonly used to describe being overweight, and the association between fat intake, obesity and heart disease seems to be almost beyond question in Western society.
However, the truth about fats is perhaps a little more complex than previously thought. Fats are crucial for many processes in our body, from stopping wounds bleeding right through to creating new cells – the very building blocks of our bodies. More recently, it has been found that a more balanced approach to fat intake is important, so the question now is this: ‘Is there such thing as good fat?’
Trans-fats, often considered the worst form of dietary fat, are usually industrially synthesised from healthier oils in order to increase shelf life, so they can be used in heavily processed food. Often listed in nutritional guidance as ‘partially hydrogenated oil’, their consumption in even tiny quantities can increase the risk of heart disease substantially, according to research by Harvard University.
Trans-fats increase circulating levels of LDL-cholesterol, the kind associated with health complications. Simultaneously, they also lower levels of HDL-cholesterol, the healthy type important for regulating fat levels in the blood. Although increasingly uncommon in processed foods in the UK due to government and expert pressure, it is still important to try and monitor your intake of trans-fats, exceeding no more than five grams a day.
Previously thought of as one of the main causes of heart disease, saturated fats are fats that are solid at room temperature. They are commonly found in red meat, whole fat milk and other dairy products. They have been associated with increases in total blood cholesterol levels, and seem to increase the proportion of LDL-cholesterol in the blood, which may increase its risk of causing subsequent health problems. With this in mind, it is recommended by many bodies, such as the NHS, that saturated fats should make up no more than 10% of a person’s calorie intake per day.
A fat that can be poured tends to be made up of unsaturated fats, and these come in two forms: mono-unsaturated fats, which are found in olive oil, avocados and nuts, and poly-unsaturated fats, found in sunflower oil and oily fish like mackerel
Mono-unsaturated fats are considered to be one of the reasons that the high-fat diet of the Mediterranean is also so healthy. This variety is good at increasing HDL-cholesterol and lowering LDL-cholesterol, tipping the balance towards a healthy heart and arteries.
Poly-unsaturated fats, which include omega-3 and omega-6 fats, have also been shown to promote levels of HDL-cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, poly-unsaturated fats are essential fats. This means your body needs them but can’t produce them, so they must be obtained through the diet in order to maintain a healthy, fully-functioning body.
The relationship between fat intake and complications such as heart disease is not as straightforward as was previously thought. Whilst it is important to limit the intake of saturated and trans-fats, it is also likely that many people are not getting enough unsaturated fats. It seems that balancing your fat intake between different types is the key to a healthy body.