Arguably one of the most controversial nutrients, fats have been riding the health rollercoaster for decades. After spending years on the nutrition naughty list, dietary fat is making a comeback.
What is dietary fat, and what are the different kinds?
Dietary fat is the fat we get from food. It can be from a plant or an animal source, and can be naturally occurring or added to a food. Dietary fat can be divided into two types – saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, and are found in foods such as:
- Coconut and coconut oil
- Meat such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb, or turkey
- Dairy products
- Baked goods
Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature, and are found in foods such as:
- Olives and olive oil
- Other oils such as canola, grapeseed, and avocado
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish, especially salmon, mackerel, and sardines
Saturated and unsaturated fats serve different functions in our body. Saturated fats tend to be used mostly for energy and don’t play a role in the structure or function of our body systems.
For many years, eating saturated fat was thought to be a main cause of heart disease. Latest research has shown that this may not be entirely true. Current research has conflicting results regarding the effects of saturated fat on the incidence of heart disease. Some studies show that saturated fat do indeed increase risk of heart attack and stroke, while others show that saturated fat intake may have a neutral or even protective effect. Other studies point to the role of sugar and refined carbohydrate as the nutritional culprits.
Unsaturated fats on the other hand are used for energy. But they can also act as signalling molecules in our body, and support healthy tissue as in our eyes and nervous system.
The Mediterranean Diet, where most of the dietary fat is from olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds, has been associated with longer life and decreased risk of cancer. There is also strong evidence that a diet with more unsaturated than saturated fat (i.e. more liquid oils, nuts, and fish) lowers risk of heart disease and stroke.
Controversy, and why your DNA may be at the center of the debate.
Coconut oil has been heralded as the newest superfood – promising to aid in weight loss, cure disease, and even prevent cavities – but is it worth the hype? Coconut oil is 87% saturated fat, containing 12 g saturated fat per tablespoon.
Convention tells us that a diet high in saturated fat increases risk of heart disease, however some studies have shown that virgin coconut oil has a protective effect for heart health. Coconut oil has also been shown to lead to increased weight loss, and specifically fat loss, in combination with exercise. However, studies have also shown that coconut oil can increase our blood cholesterol and may contribute to weight gain.
Conflicting ideas exist around coconut oil, dietary fat, and other nutrients because often different studies that examine the same thing can yield different results. A nutrient that is beneficial to one group of people in one study can sometimes be shown to have no benefit to another group of people in another study.
Genetics could be the cause of this difference.
Our genetic makeup, inherited from our parents, can determine how our body processes and reacts to a certain nutrient. Therefore, one person may tolerate a diet higher in saturated fat with no increased risk of heart disease, while another with different genetics may get more benefit from a diet low in saturated fats. Luckily, we now have the tools to analyze our DNA, like with the dietPower test, and we can use that information to determine what dietary pattern is best for our overall health.
Although genetic analysis is best for determining what type of fat and how much will get you to your healthiest self, here are a few dietitian-approved ideas for adding healthy fats to your diet:
- Use olive oil. While the jury is still out on coconut oil, olive oil is well-established as being great for our health.
- Eat 1-2 servings of fish per week (1 serving of fish is about the size of your palm). Sorry, fish and chips don’t count! The extra fat added by deep frying outweighs any beneficial unsaturated fat in the fish.
- For vegans, or for those who don’t eat fish, an alternative to fish is 1 tbsp of chia seeds per day, ¼ cup walnuts per day, or omega-3 supplements derived from algae sources.
- Try ¼ cup unsalted nuts or seeds as a snack – they’re a good source of unsaturated fats, and they are high in fibre and protein too.
- Choose cooking oils that are cold-processed, virgin or extra-virgin, and that come in a dark coloured bottle. Light and heat can destroy some of the nutrients found in oils, so they’re best stored in a cool, dark place.
- Trim visible fat off of cuts of meat, and choose lean cuts most often.
- Add half an avocado to your salad for a good source of fibre and healthy fats that will keep you feeling full for longer.