Fat – guilty or not guilty of crimes against health?

Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth. They also help protect your organs and keep your body warm. Some nutrients, i.e. vitamins A D and E are fat-soluble, which means they can only be absorbed with the help of fat. Fat is also a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself, for example, omega-3.

Fats help your body absorb and produce important hormones too. A small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Unfortunately, FAT tends to have very poor PR. Partly because its name is synonymous with a physique that is no longer considered desirable and because over consumption of certain fats is linked to coronary heart disease, strokes and obesity, which put huge strains on families and on healthcare systems throughout the world.

Different types of fats have different chemical structures and physical properties. Some fats are liquid at room temperature while others are solid. If a fat is liquid at room temperature it is called “oil”.

Fats are also referred to as lipids by nutritionists – a lipid is any type of fat regardless of whether it is solid or liquid at room temperature or if it is derived from animals or vegetables.

There are four major dietary fats in the foods we eat:

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Eating too much saturated fat increases the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and possibly a stroke.

Saturated fats are found in meat from mammals (e.g. cows, pigs sheep), meat products (sausages, ham, burgers), the skin of poultry, dairy products (hard cheeses, whole milk and cream, butter), lard, ghee, many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps, as well as coconut oil and palm oil.

Unsaturated Fats – these come in two types

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Health experts say the impact on health of monounsaturated fats is neutral – they are neither good nor bad for you. However, studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. Research also shows that monounsaturated fats may be of benefit to controlling insulin levels and blood sugar.

Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, groundnut oil, rapeseed oil, olives, avocados, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachios and spreads made from these nuts.

Polyunsaturated Fats

This is a type of fat found mostly in plant-based foods and oils. Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats, especially those from fish (known as the Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may also help reduce the symptoms experienced by people who suffer from arthritis, joint problems in general, and some skin diseases. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, the body doesn't convert it and use it as well as omega-3 from fish. Polyunsaturated fats have also been linked to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in oily fish (sardines, mackerel, trout, salmon and herring), safflower oil, grape-seed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, sesame oil, soya oil, and spreads made from those oils. Flaxseed, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.

Trans Fats

Whilst trans fats can occur naturally in some foods in small amounts, they are primarily synthetically made through an industrial process. This involves adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid. This is known as partial hydrogenation. By partially hydrogenating oils, they become easier to cook with and less likely to spoil than do naturally occurring oils. Consequently, trans fats have become popular because food companies find them easy to use and cheap to produce. They also give food a nice taste.

Trans fats are not essential for human life and do not promote good health. Hence they should be avoided where possible. Research studies show that trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Trans fats are commonly found in fried foods, such as French fries, fast foods, takeaways doughnuts, pies, pastries, biscuits, pizza dough, cookies, crackers, hard margarines and many other baked foods. Trans fats can be reused many times in commercial friers so they are commonly used in fast food outlets and restaurants.

Fat – The Verdict

The fat you eat is broken down during digestion into smaller units of fat called fatty acids. Any fat not used by your body’s cells to create energy is converted into body fat. All types of fat are high in energy. A gram of fat, whether saturated or unsaturated, provides 9kcal (37kJ) of energy compared with 4kcal (17kJ) for carbohydrate and protein.

Because fats are so energy-dense, consuming high levels of fat – regardless of the type – can lead to taking in too many calories. That can lead to weight gain or being overweight. Therefore even if you are eating the good fats, it is important to limit the total amount of fat you consume.

Eating foods with a moderate amount of fat is definitely part of a healthy diet. The key is to balance the amount of calories you eat with the amount of calories you burn. Of course regular exercise is a great way to burn off excess calories. Technogym’s home equipment range, such as MYRUN, offers a simple solution to exercise so that it is easy to fit more movement into your life.

Choosing to eat more fruit and vegetables, whole foods and lean cuts of meat and avoiding highly processed foods will keep your diet low in both saturated fats and trans fats. The average man should aim to have no more than 30g of saturated fat a day and the average woman, no more than 20g.

Fat need not be your enemy. Indeed, if used wisely, fat can be and major ally in reaching and maintaining a wellness lifestyle over time.