It seems strange to associate fats with the word ‘good’ and ‘diet’. However, let’s not forget that ‘Fat’ is a macronutrient and it has numerous health benefits. It is a major source of energy, it helps manage our cholesterol levels, it is needed in building cell membranes and sheaths around nerve cells and it is important for muscle movement. Fat can stimulate the production of brain cells and improve memory and it can also help produce and balance reproductive hormones in women and men. Some vitamins like A, D, E and K require fat to get efficiently absorbed in the body. We can ensure that we obtain all these benefits from fat if we are clear about which fats to introduce in our daily diets, as all fats are not equal.
Fat has received bad press in the past in order to begin the ‘low fat’ diet movement, in which we were advised to buy low fat foods pumped with refined sugar to lose weight. We related the macronutrient fat with weight gain. This could not be further from the truth. Weight gain occurs when we eat in excess of our body’s needs. And we can gain weight eating too much of any macronutrient; protein, carbohydrates or fat. In fact if you include fats in your diet you will tend to decrease the quantities of food you eat. However, it is important to note that all fats are not beneficial for our bodies. There are ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’.
Fats are made of carbon chains attached to hydrogen atoms. The length of the carbon chains and the number of hydrogen atoms attached determines the type of fat and it’s function. The most detrimental fat or ‘bad fat’ is ‘trans fat’. This is a by product of a process called hydrogenation in which more hydrogen atoms are added to the chain of carbons, to convert the liquid form of oils to solid forms like vegetable shortening and solid margarines. Trans fats were introduced by food companies to increase the shelf life of their products like baked goods, to prevent them from going rancid. They were also used in fast food french fries. Trans fats have no benefits; in fact, they increase the level of LDL or bad cholesterol and decrease the amount of good cholesterol or HDL. This can lead to plaque build up in arteries and cause strokes and heart disease. Trans fat can also trigger insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
As the name implies the chain of carbon atoms in this fat has the maximum number of hydrogen atoms it can hold. This kind of fat comes from animal sources like red meat, poultry and full fat dairy products. Also, coconut oil contains saturated fats. Too much of this kind of fat in your diet can raise both HDL and LDL, which can lead to heart disease (to be sure, however, these fats still have their benefits, and so the matter isn’t one of eliminating, but rather, reducing one’s consumption of, them).
These are the ‘good fats’ which have fewer hydrogen atoms bonded to their carbon chains and a single carbon to carbon double bond. Some sources of monounsaturated fats are avocados, most nuts, olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and canola oil. In the 1960s a Seven Countries Study found that in Mediterranean countries the incidence of heart disease was very low despite a high fat diet. The fat in their diet though was not saturated fat but mostly monounsaturated fat like olive oil! That is what gave the ‘Mediterranean diet’ such popularity amongst health professionals. Though there is no daily requirement of monounsaturated fats, it is advisable to eliminate trans fats and replace saturated fats by monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats as much as possible.
These ‘good fats’ also have fewer hydrogen atoms but they have two or more double bonds in their carbon chains. Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats but our bodies cannot make them so we have to get them through our diet. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats which have profound health benefits. These are Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. They are necessary for building our cell membranes, sheaths of nerves, blood clotting, muscle movement and managing inflammation in the body. Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, and various seeds such as flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts and canola oil. Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, lowering triglycerides and help prevent heart disease and strokes. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods rich in linoleic acid and vegetable oils like cold pressed safflower, sunflower, corn and walnut. Omega-6 fatty acids are also known to reduce the risk of heart disease.
It is wise to always determine the source of your oils and their extraction and treatment methods. For example, consider the variants of Olive Oil: extra virgin, refined, olive oil and pomace. The finest quality of olive oil is the ‘Extra virgin’ kind as it is extracted mechanically and directly from the olives themselves, without the use of chemicals or excessive heat. It is therefore able to retain it’s high antioxidant content. The more bitter the extra virgin olive oil the higher the antioxidant content. It should not be used for cooking but instead used as a condiment and drizzled over breads and salads, used in salad dressings, mayonnaise and uncooked sauces. ‘Refined olive oil’ is obtained by taking low quality olive oil and treating it with chemicals and filters. When the bottle says just ‘Olive oil’ it means that it is a blend of refined and extra virgin olive oil. ‘Pomace olive oil’ is made from ground flesh and pits and it is extracted using solvents and other physical treatments. It is a low grade olive oil with no nutrients.
Apart from the source it is important to note the smoking point of the oil you are going to cook with. The smoking point is the temperature at which the oil breaks down and ceases to be nutritious. The oils that have high smoke points can be used in high heat cooking like deep frying and stir frying. Oils such as peanut, sesame and soybean can be used for this kind of high heat cooking. Oils with moderately high smoke points can be used to saute’ vegetables over medium-high heat. These oils are canola, olive, avocado and corn. Oils extracted from flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnut and extra virgin olive oils have low smoking points and are best not heated.
How do you ensure your daily intake of good fats?
Snack on them: You can eat nuts and seeds in their whole form or ground up in ‘Energy balls’. A nutritious trail mix with roasted nuts and seeds can be an excellent source of good fats and a great snack in the day to keep you going. It also helps you reduce your food cravings and portions at meals. The energy balls are roasted nuts and seeds ground up and often sweetened with dates and sometimes packed in with raw cacao and desiccated coconut flakes to give you that incredible energy boost! These are easy to make and can make healthy snacking accessible.
Sprinkle them: Roasted seeds and nuts can be sprinkled on salads, on cooked vegetables and on your breakfast granola!
Spread them: Replace animal fat butter with nut and seed butters. However, be cautious to get ones that have no added salt and sugar.
These can be incredible ways to include good fats in your daily diet, however, ensure that, like with anything else, you do not over do it. You are required to average 1.5 ounces of good fats a day. So do keep that in mind when you begin to reduce animal fats like butter for instance with nut or seed butter. That would be a part of your daily intake. Also, it’s best to eat nuts with their skins which have the antioxidants and phytonutrients. So, either have them raw or roasted. It is easier to digest roasted nuts and seeds and they may taste better! It is recommended to make the trail mix or energy balls at home by dry roasting seeds or nuts at 180 C for 5-10 minutes. If you are not inclined to roasting them at home you can find them in the market, however, just read the label and ensure that they do not have salt, sugar or other preservatives added to them.