Let’s bust a myth right off – there’s no need to be afraid of fat, it’s not the enemy it’s been portrayed as.
Of course, our fat consumption needs to be controlled, at 9 calories per gram it’s the nutrient with the highest calorific value, but just because you eat fat doesn’t mean you’ll get fat. Fat is found naturally in our bodies and some fats we can only get from the food we eat, so it is an essential part of our diet – without it, we’ll die.
WHY DO WE NEED FAT?
Its main role is to provide energy, and fat is the way we store excess food energy. This is what allows us to draw on our reserves when food is in short supply – think of it as our natural battery. Adding fat to a meal is the most effective way of increasing the energy content – we also get energy from carbohydrates. What’s worth remembering is that if we are massively over-consuming fat, and our body doesn’t need that much, we will put on weight as our stores build up.
WHAT DOES FAT DO?
Fat provides insulation and protection to our internal organs, and a certain amount of body fat is needed to support fertility for all you ladies out there. What’s really crucial is that it supplies some fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, such as omega 3 and 6. In our weird and wonderful bodies many nutrients need the presence of fat to be properly absorbed. For example, having a little oil-based salad dressing is better than no dressing at all – it means we’re able to absorb more vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene, from the veg.
TYPES OF FAT
- Unsaturated fats – these are generally the healthier type of fats to consume, where the dominant fatty acid is either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. They’re found in olive oil and other liquid vegetable oils (see below), as well as nuts, legumes, avocados and omega-3 rich oily fish. Some oils help lower bad cholesterol and raise the good stuff – we like that
- Saturated fats – animal fats (butter, lard, suet, meat fat) tend to contain more saturated fatty acids, but also contain monounsaturated fatty acids. These fats are usually solid at room temperature. Because saturated fats raise cholesterol levels, we should be mindful of our consumption of them. They have also been linked with an increased risk of heart disease
HOW MUCH FAT DO WE NEED?
All fats should be eaten in moderation. In the UK, it’s recommended that the average woman gets no more than 70g of fat per day, with less than 20g of that from saturated fat, and the average man no more than 90g a day, with less than 30g coming from saturates.
THE HEALTHIEST OILS
One of the easiest ways to get good fats into your diet is to use a little oil in your cooking. Keep a range in your pantry for different purposes. Here’s my top five:
- Olive & extra virgin olive oil – super-high in omega 9, use cheaper, lighter olive oil for lower-temperature cooking, and save extra virgin olive oil for dressings and finishing. Worth a special mention is cold-pressed new season’s extra virgin olive oil – if you can get your hands on some each year, and only use it over that year while it’s at its best, you’ll be very happy
- Rapeseed oil – a good source of omega 3, 6 and vitamin E, this contains half the saturated fat of olive oil. It has a fairly neutral flavour, so is great in all sorts of dishes and probably the most affordable healthy oil option out there. Look for cold-pressed varieties
- Walnut oil – a good source of omega 3 and 6, this oil is brilliant for dressings, marinades and finishing and can be used to great effect in baking
- Avocado oil – with the natural goodness of avocados, this is super-high in monounsaturated fats, omega 9 and vitamin E, and is useful for lower-temperature cooking, dressings, marinades and finishing
- Sunflower oil – an excellent source of omega 6 and vitamin E, this is a great, cheap oil to have in stock for higher-temperature cooking
Other oils I use are omega-3 rich hemp oil, omega-9 rich almond oil, groundnut or vegetable oil for higher- temperature cooking, and sesame oil for Asian-style cooking, dressings and marinades.
OMEGA FATTY ACIDS
We need omega-6 fatty acids for many functions, including growth and development, and to maintain healthy skin – we generally get plenty of these in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are needed in smaller amounts to help keep our brains and hearts in tip-top condition, as well as helping to reduce our risk of heart attacks and strokes. Omega-3 sources are more limited – oily fish and vegetable oils are our best bet. Both of these essential polyunsaturated fatty acids can’t be made in the body, so we have to get them from food. We can, however, make omega-9 fatty acids in the body, but it’s still beneficial to use oils rich in them rather than saturated fats to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks.
THE COCONUT OIL MYTH
There are so many health gurus shouting about the health benefits of coconut oil, so I spoke to the leading fat specialist in the UK, Professor Tom Sanders, and others, and they all have the same opinion on this. Now I’m not anti coconut oil, but I am anti its overuse and the fictitious benefits being bandied around it. It’s absorbed and turned into energy more quickly, which is perceived as helpful, but it’s still the highest saturated fat on the planet and very low in essential fatty acids. If you consume too much it will nudge you in the direction of heart disease. My advice is to use it in moderation and only in dishes where it adds appropriate flavour, such as curries.