Written by Rhiannon Stone, Accredited Practicing Dietitian
Low fat, no fat, skim, lite, 99% fat free... food marketing has taken reign 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?
Are you in the frame of mind 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 like salmon, mackerel, herring as EPA & DHA, and in plant-based sources like chia, hemp and flaxseeds seeds, seaweed and walnuts as ALA.
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 cholesterol levels which may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These are often found within animal-based products, processed or fast foods and palm and coconut oil.
What are the benefits of including fats in the 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 that you are not consuming enough fat can include:
1. Vitamin Deficiencies
Consuming fats is 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 oestrogen. With restricted fat intake, oestrogen production begins to reduce which hinders the regulation of our menstrual cycles and can lead to amenorrhea (absence of a period) - a common side effect of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, orthorexia and bulimia nervosa.
3. Poor concentration and fatigue
Fats provide double the amount of energy per gram compared to protein and carbohydrates. Although our body initially uses carbohydrates as an energy source (especially during exercise), fat is relied upon as a second port of call. Studies on older populations have also concluded that populations which include healthy fats daily (such as those following the Mediterranean diet) are more likely to preserve their memory for longer!
Do I need to choose 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 gurus 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
To delve deeper into serving sizes and different sources of fat in the diet, download our How To Build a Balanced Plate Guide for free!
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! Appreciating these health benefits can help you on the way to overcoming fear foods too.
If you've gained a lot of insight from this blog post then you'll want to head over to 10 Reasons Why We Need Carbohydrates to keep learning about macronutrients.
At TCN our specialist eating disorder dietitians can offer online consultations to support your health journey and help you build a healthy relationship with food. Book a free 15 minute discovery call here with one of our dietitians.
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 Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, gut health and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.