Fats for nutrition, health and weight-loss
Here at La Crisalida, guests regularly ask us questions about dietary fat. Many people who want to lose weight seek to exclude fat from their diet, often following “low-fat” diets at home, completely avoiding food items like nuts and avocados. In this article we look at what we mean by “good fats” and “bad fats”. And we look at which fats to include in your diet, so you can reach optimum health and lose weight to reach and then maintain your ideal weight.
Fats provide energy for the body, and some vitamins, like vitamins A and D need fat to be able to dissolve (so that the body can make use of them). The constituent part of fat, fatty acids, are essential for your health. However, some fats are definitely bad for you, increasing cholesterol levels and causing furring of arteries, which can lead to heart disease and other health problems.
In the UK, the dietary recommendations are that a maximum of 30-35% of your daily food calorie intake comes from total fat, so, for the average female diet of 2000 calories per day, this equates to roughly 65-70 grams of fat, maximum. As an example, a fast food meal of two pieces of chicken and small chips contains around 50g of fat. However, the typical UK diet means that many people consume more than that. And, in most instances, the excess fat gets stored in your body.
There are many types of fat. In food, you will find two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated and unsaturated fat contain the same amount of calories. For a healthy nutritionally balanced diet, you should eat foods that are rich in unsaturated fat and reduce or eliminate foods that are high in saturated fat. A third type of fat found in food is trans-fats. We look at them in more detail below.
“Bad” fat: Saturated fat
Saturated fat (typically solid at room temperature) has been shown to increase cholesterol, increase your risk of coronary heart disease and contribute to weight gain. In the UK, it is recommended that we should consume no more than 20g saturated fat per day.
So how do you know how much saturated fat you are eating?
As a general rule, meat and dairy products tend to contain higher amounts of saturated fat. If you buy packaged food from the supermarket, look on the nutritional information box on the back or side and it will tell you the amount of saturated fat in the product, usually per 100g.
Foods to avoid or reduce: i.e. food sources high in saturated fat
• Meat (especially fatty cuts) and meat products like pies and sausages
• Dairy products: butter, cheese (especially hard cheese), cream and sour cream
• Ice cream
• Biscuits, cakes and pastries
• Snacks, like crisps or crackers
• Confectionary, like chocolate bars
You can also steam or grill products, rather than frying or roasting. Try frying or roasting using water instead of oil – just keep an eye on your food and keep adding water to prevent sticking.
A note on Coconut oil
Coconut oil has a high saturated fat content, however, the type of saturated fat in coconut oil is different and has a different effect on the body. There is much debate about how much coconut oil to include in your diet as researchers argue it affects cholesterol levels. There are two types of cholesterol (i) “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins or HDL) and (ii) “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins or LDL). LDL is what leads to the hardening of the arteries, whereas HDL seems to protect against this hardening. Some research suggests the type of saturated in coconut oil affects HDL and not the bad (LDL), meaning you are in better health. It does have quite a strong flavour, so here at La Crisalida, we use coconut oil occasionally. As with everything, we believe balance is the key.
“Bad” fat: Trans-fats
What are trans-fats?
Trans-fats are chemically altered vegetable oils, made by a process called hydrogenation. The reason you want to avoid or keep them at a low level in your diet is because trans-fats can increase blood cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart problems and other health issues.
So how do you spot trans-fats?
Any packaged foods that contain trans-fats (like hydrogenated vegetable oil, or partially hydrogenated oil) has to be labelled as such, so you can easily spot them. Margarine is a good example of hydrogenated (or partially-hydrogenated) oil. Other products likely to contain trans-fats include crisps, pastries and baked goods, sweets and chocolates.
The average recommended maximum amount is 5g for adults (approximately 2% of daily calories), but for optimum health and weight, you are best to avoid them where possible
“Good” fat: Unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats (typically liquid at room temperature) fall into two main categories:
• Polyunsaturated – found mainly in plant based foods and oils
• Monounsaturated – found in a variety of foods and oils
The definition is due to their chemical structure, which we are not going to go into here. Just know that they have many positive effects on your body. Scientists are still studying the potential health benefits consumption in unsaturated fats can bring; they include lowering cholesterol, reducing cancer risk and lowering risk of coronary heart disease.
Foods to eat: food sources high in unsaturated fats
• Nuts and seeds (28g or 1oz, a handful)
• Oils, like olive and sunflower oils
• (For you non-vegans out there: Oily fish, like salmon, mackeral and fresh tuna)
Whilst we are looking at fats, no discussion would be complete without mentioning fatty acids. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat and required by the body to maintain strong cells and organs, to move oxygen around the body, for our metabolism and to generally keep us alive and functioning in tip-top health.
You may have also heard the term “essential fatty acids” (EFA). Essential means that the body needs that fatty acid for full functioning, but it cannot produce it by itself, which means we need to consume these fatty acids in our diet. EFA’s help the body to dissolve fat, so include them regularly in your diet to help to achieve and maintain your ideal body weight. EFA’s include omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid). Omega-3 helps to reverse inflammation , and omega-6 is particularly good for the skin and helps maintain hormone balance. These good fats help weight reduction, enhance your immunity, clear up your skin and lower cholesterol. Omega-9 is another fatty acid, although is not classed as “essential”. Good sources include olive oil, almonds and walnuts.
Best sources of EFAs include
• Flax seed (2-4 tablespoons per day)
• Sunflower and pumpkin seeds (handful, 28g or 1oz)
• Sea vegetables (like nori, seaweed)
• Avocados (1/5th)
• Oily fish
As a minimum, aim to include at least one portion of these foods every day (portion size is given in brackets above). If you buy whole flax seeds (or linseeds), remember to grind them so that they are more easily digested by the body. Maybe sprinkle them you’re your breakfast porridge or muesli, or over a salad. They can also be added to our energy balls (see this months recipe).
For maximum health and to reach your ideal weight, make sure you eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, grains (like rice, millet, quinoa etc), nuts and seeds, with some oils (like olive, sunflower or hempseed oil) in their natural state, plus avocados. Remember, some fats are good for us, and by eating healthily and including these healthy fats (as well as regular exercise), you will reach your ideal weight.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).