We hear a lot about fats in the media, but which ones are actually good for us and which ones should we avoid? Justine Butler has all the answers…
It’s not always clear what we should or shouldn’t be eating to protect our health – especially when it comes to fat. Sensationalist headlines declare ‘butter is back’ but official guidelines continue to say we should be replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat.
Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in butter, lard, ghee, fatty meats, cheese and eggs, as well as pies, pastries, processed foods, fatty spreads and coconut and palm oil. It is usually solid at room temperature.
Fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as protein or carbohydrate, which is why it’s a good source of energy – for immediate use or stored in the body for when food is scarce. Animals store fat in their muscles, between muscles, under the skin and around the organs. Plants tend to store their fats in seeds, which includes nuts, beans, corn and other grains. Sometimes it’s in the fleshy layer protecting the seed, such as with avocados, olives and coconuts.
We need fat for many body functions – it helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K, provides energy and insulation, protecting our vital organs and acting as a shock absorber. One fat we don’t need is saturated fat as our bodies can make all we need. The type of fat we do need is called polyunsaturated fat, found in avocados, nuts, seeds and plant oils.
Eating lots of saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
How much should we be eating?
The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey say that most of us eat too much saturated fats and government health guidelines advise cutting down on all fats and replacing saturated fat with some unsaturated fat:
• Men shouldn’t eat more than 30 grams of saturated fat a day
• Women shouldn’t eat more than 20 grams of saturated fat a day
To reduce your intake of saturated fat, cut out all animal foods and limit processed foods – so as vegans we are already one step ahead.
Olive oil is good for cooking and flaxseed oil for dressings (always choose a good quality, cold-pressed variety).
Add a small handful of nuts and seeds to your daily diet to ensure a good supply of healthy polyunsaturated fat. Sprinkle them over your morning cereal or add them to your lunchtime salad.
Avoiding animal foods while including some foods containing unsaturated fat – avocados, nuts, seeds and a small amount of plant oil – is a simple and effective way to protect your health.