Why do we need fat?
Like carbohydrates and protein, fat is an essential nutrient. It’s an important energy source and is vital for brain function, glowing complexion and shiny hair. Fat also protects your joints and helps the body to absorb certain nutrients, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
The new view of fat
Saturated fat won’t kill you
Few studies have shaken nutrition to the core like one released in March this year in The Annals of Internal Medicine journal. It looked at the association between most fats and cardiovascular disease, and found none, seemingly making liars of every food pyramid and nutritionist of the last 30 years. Then people discovered other studies, including one in 2010 that had reached the same conclusion. And just recently, Harvard University’s chief nutritionist said that full-fat milk was actually better for your health than low-fat milk.
Suddenly the fat rush was on. Men’s magazines breathlessly told their readers why eating fat was good and some Paleo followers in the US replaced sugar in their coffees with chunks of grass-fed butter!
But sanity has now prevailed and it seems the story with saturated fat is this: it’s still not good for you, but it’s not going to kill you either. Saturated fat still boosts one of the main risk factors of heart disease, LDL (bad cholesterol), but some studies show it also raises a type of HDL (good cholesterol) and may lower triglycerides (a type of fat in our blood). Saturated fat may be neutral, health-wise. Nonetheless, you won’t find any nutritionist or health professional that will suggest making saturated fat a bigger part of your diet.
Trans fat is still bad
The Annals of Internal Medicine study didn’t exonerate trans fats, however. These occur naturally in small amounts in meat and some dairy products. The problem with trans fats is that they are also man-made during food processing by a method called hydrogenation. This involves converting a liquid oil into a solid fat with the use of harsh chemicals, high heat and pressure — all for the sake of making your margarine easy to spread straight from the fridge, or to give a finer texture and extended shelf life to cakes, pastries, biscuits and fast foods.
Eat lots of unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats, including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, can help lower LDL cholesterol, prevent heart disease and, get this, can even help you burn fat! Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados and most nuts. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats (aka essential fatty acids): omega-3 (found in oily fish, walnuts and flax seed) and omega-6 fatty acids (found in tahini, sunflower and safflower oil, pine nuts and brazil nuts). Essential fatty acids are the name given to these types of fat that you need to eat. This is why they are called essential. Your body cannot make them, you must eat them.
Rest assured, you can stop treating fat like the dirty F-word. Just make sure most of your fat intake is from the unsaturated kind, and be sure not to replace fat with unrefined carbs and sugar.