Why do we need fats in our diet?
Written by Rhiannon Stone, Registered Dietitian
Low fat, no fat, skim, lite, 99% fat free... food marketing has taken reigns of convincing consumers that cutting fats from their diet is better for health.
However, research tells us otherwise! Fats are a vital part of our diet allowing our bodies to function at their best every day.
What are the different types of fats?
In the mind frame that all fats are bad? Prepare to be corrected! Essentially, there are two classes of fats broken into 4 essential fatty acids:
Unsaturated fats are considered “good” fats which are linked to reducing the risk of heart disease and lowering cholesterol levels. There are two main types of unsaturated fats:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids which are found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) and plant-based sources in chia, hemp and flaxseeds seeds, seaweed and walnuts.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids which are found in some oils such as sunflower and soybean oil, as well as some seeds and nuts, including brazil nuts.
Assist with lowering LDL (the not so good cholesterol) and increasing the HDL (good cholesterol).
Found in extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and nuts such as cashews and almonds.
Saturated fats and trans fats
If we were aiming to reduce fats in our diet, saturated and trans fats are the ones to watch! Due to their chemical structure, saturated and trans fats contribute to elevating our LDL levels which may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These are often found within animal-based products, processed/fast foods and coconut and palm oil.
What are the benefits of including fats in our diet?
Despite the bad press fats have received over the years, they are an essential nutrient to incorporate into our daily intake. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Preserving brain function:
Approximately 60% of the human brain is made up from fat. Research proves that omega 3 fatty acids are among the most crucial element to support our brains ability to perform, preserving the membrane of brain cells, assisting communication between cells and preserve memory over time. Consuming just 2-3 serves (150g each) of oily fish a week gives your body the omega 3 it needs!
2. Maintain myelin sheaths:
On the topic of brain function, omega 3 fatty acids can also aid in restoring and repairing our myelin sheaths. Myelin sheaths are the fatty tissue layers that protect our nerve cells and allow electrical impulses to communicate efficiently from cell to cell. By incorporating foods such as oily fish, chia seeds and walnuts, we are assisting in the maintenance of these vital nerve protectors.
3. Insulation and protection:
By including fat within our everyday diet, we are creating vital fat stores. Visceral fat (stored in our abdominal cavity) and subcutaneous fat (stores underneath the skin) are vital in creating a protective layer around our organs and regulating our body temperature. Those with extremely low visceral and subcutaneous fat stores are at risk of minimal protection from impact such as a hit or fall.
What happens if we don’t include enough fats in our diet?
It it is recommended that 25-35% of our daily energy intake comes from fats. If you are not consuming enough fat, some vital biological processes may not work like we expect! Some signs of not consuming enough fat can include:
Consuming fats are crucial for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. If we are not absorbing these vitamins due to lack of fats in our diets, we can be at an increased risk of infertility, dry hair and skin (and even hair loss!), depression, muscle fatigue and brittle nails.
2.Loss of menstrual cycle
Our bodies rely on healthy fats to regulate hormones, particularly testosterone and estrogen. When restricting fat intake, estrogen production begins to reduce which hinders the regulation of our menstrual cycles.
3.Poor concentration and fatigue
Fats provide double the amount of energy per gram compared to protein and carbs. Although our body initially uses carbohydrates as an energy source (especially during exercise), fat is relied upon as a second point of call. Studies on older populations have also concluded that populations that include healthy fats daily (such as those following the Mediterranean diet) are more likely to preserve their memory for longer!
Do I need to opt for low fat options?
Choosing low fat varieties may be necessary when aiming to reduce cardiovascular risk factors such as lowering cholesterol. If this is something that has been encouraged by a medical professional, opting for a diet lower in saturated and trans fats would be of benefit! But don’t let the clever food marketing guru’s confuse you! Read the labels for yourself and opt for products that are less than 2g/100g of saturated fat and less than 1g/100g for trans fats!
How much fat should I be aiming for?
We don't recommend tracking or weighing your food, so a good place to start is to include a source of fat with each main meal. At a minimum, this will be approximately the size of your thumb or:
1 tablespoon of oil
1 tablespoon of nut butter, nuts or seeds.
1/2 a small avocado
2 tablespoons toppings that use extra virgin olive oil like pesto or hummus
And then include them as part of balanced snacks as well. Tips on how to include fats as part of a balanced diet:
Choose extra virgin olive oil in cooking and salad dressings
Snack on nuts and seeds
Use avocado, natural nut and seed butters (peanut butter, tahini, almond butter) on wholegrain cracker or bread
Aim to create your own ‘soul foods’ rather than regularly consuming store-bought pastries, cakes or deep-fried foods.
Add chia, hemp or flaxseeds seeds to your morning muesli, yoghurt, or smoothie!
So, the next time you’re faced with the fear of fats, remember the incredible benefits unsaturated fats can bring to a well rounded diet!
Written by Rhiannon Stone
Rhiannon is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) based in Brisbane, Australia. She is passionate about creating a positive food culture and educating the public on how to nourish their mind and body through good nutrition. Make sure to follow her on instagram at @rhiset_dietetics where she posts informative content, tips and resources.
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.