Due to the popular low-fat diets of the 80s and 90s, combined with the even more popular high-fat diets of the 2000s (Atkins and later paleo), many people are confused by this hotly debated nutrient: fat.
One of three primary macronutrients (the others being protein and carbohydrate), fat is a highly energy-dense nutrient that’s present in both plant and animal-based food sources.
To make complex biochemistry as simple as possible, there are a number of different types of fat that can be simply explained as belonging to two different groups: saturated fat and unsaturated fat.
The names of these fats come from the type of carbon bonds present in their chemical structure. While you don’t need to know too much about this (unless you want to be a scientist) when it comes to eating well, what you do need to know is the major food sources of fat and how to make a healthy choice.1
The evidence suggests that choosing food rich in unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats is the first step, followed closely by choosing foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids in particular, a type of unsaturated fat that’s essential to the functioning of our bodies.
It’s important to note that all fat-containing foods contain varying amounts of both saturated and unsaturated fats. Each type of food, however, contains differing amounts of each kind and tends to be rich in a particular type.
The good: unsaturated fats
Healthier fats are mono and polyunsaturated fats. As a general rule, these come from plant-based food sources like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. However, like all rules there are always exceptions. Fish is also a good source of unsaturated fat, and coconut products are generally high in saturated fat.
A type of unsaturated fat known as omega-3s is essential fat, meaning it’s important in our diet and should be eaten as often as possible. Here are a few ways to increase your intake of healthy fats, omega-3s included:
- Avocados – spread on rye toast or wholemeal crackers, or toss through a salad or pasta dish.
- Nuts – snack on raw, unsalted nuts such as cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, macadamias etc.
- Seeds – linseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin and chia seeds are fantastic sprinkled over your breakfast cereal or muesli.
- Fish – tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines are the best sources of healthy fats, but other types of fish are also good. Including about 1–2 serves of fish in your diet every week is a great way of reducing your saturated fat intake and ensuring a good serve of omega-3s.
- Vegetable oils – olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil and canola oil are all good sources of healthy fats. Olive oil is good when roasting vegetables, making pesto and dressing salads.
The bad: saturated fats
Saturated fat is typically referred to as ‘bad’ fat. This type of fat has been linked to heart disease and other related illnesses.
Saturated fat, as a general rule, comes from animal-based products: meat, chicken and dairy. The exception is that coconut and its products (milk, cream, etc) is also high in saturated fat, yet it is plant based; seafood is generally low in saturated fat even though it is animal based.
Saturated fat must be labeled on packaged food in the nutrition information panel, so you’ll know if a particular food contains it. Here are a few ways you can reduce your saturated fat intake:
- Cut the visible fat off meat (lamb, beef, pork) before cooking.
- Choose leaner varieties of mince, eg, heart smart, premium etc.
- Choose low fat or skim milk – these products don’t contain added sugar.
- Choose low fat or skim yoghurts – check labels for added sugar.
- Choose lite or reduced fat cheeses – even though the fat content is reduced in lite cheese, it’s still a high fat food, so eat it in moderation.
- Limit your intake of cream and butter – margarine has very little saturated and trans fats and is a good alternative to butter. If you prefer butter, only eat it in small amounts.
- Limit your intake of processed foods – these include cakes, biscuits, chips, chocolate, creamy sauces, dips, ice cream, pastries, cream, cream cheese and creamy-based desserts.
One of the non-nutrient reasons we would eat food is due to texture and mouthfeel. Fats absorb flavour well and also feel good on our tongue when we eat them. Combined with carbohydrates, they also leave us feeling full and satisfied.
One philosophy you could follow for making food choices is to eat food that has had minimal processing done to it between the farmer and yourself. Fat and its food sources are just one part of a whole diet that needs to include a range of whole foods to ensure you get the complete set of vitamins and minerals for optimal health.
This means choosing lots of whole, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, meat, dairy products and wholegrains as well as nuts, seeds and avocado. Processed foods can be included, but try not to make them the main component of your diet.
When building a meal out of a range of these whole foods, you could use a small amount of fat-rich food, like nuts, avocado, olive oil, dip or aioli to add flavour, texture and enjoyment to your meal.
Learning how to flavour your meals in this way can help you avoid overeating but allow you to enjoy these foods in a balanced way.
1 Optimal Diets for Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, Frank B. Hu, Walter C. Willett, JAMA. 2002;288(20):2569-2578.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.