Fat: to cut or not to cut, that is the question

Fat is an essential part of our diet and is important for good health. There are different types of fats, and some are healthier than others. To help make sure you stay healthy, it’s best to choose mainly healthy fats, in moderate amounts.

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are healthy fats and are an important part of a healthy diet. These fats help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol levels when they replace saturated fats.

There are two main types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats:

  • Omega-3 fats which are found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies as well as walnuts, canola oil, soy products, flaxseeds and omega-3 enriched eggs.
  • Omega-6 fats which are found in some oils such as safflower and soybean oil, along with some nuts, including brazil nuts.

Monounsaturated fats:

  • Found in olive and canola oil, avocados and some nuts, such as cashews and almonds.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats aren’t so healthy, and eating greater amounts of saturated fat is linked with high blood cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease. These fats are solid at room temperature and are found in:

Animal-based products:

  • Dairy foods – such as butter, cream, ice-cream, regular-fat milk, custard and cheese
  • Meat – such as fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb, processed meats like salami, and chicken (especially chicken skin).

Some plant-derived products:

  • Palm oil
  • Coconut oil, milk and cream
  • Cooking margarine.

Saturated fats are also found in processed foods such as:

  • Fatty snack foods
  • Deep fried take away foods e.g. hot chips, chicken nuggets, spring rolls, battered/crumbed fish
  • Packaged cakes and biscuits
  • Pastries and pies.

Trans fats

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been processed, and behave like saturated fats inside the body. Trans fats also naturally occur in very small amounts in animal products (eg. dairy, beef and lamb products) due to the way that some animals digest their food1. Consumption of manufactured trans fats increases the level of bad cholesterol and decreases the level of good cholesterol in the body, posing a major risk to heart health. It is important to lower the amounts of trans fats you eat to help improve your health and lower the risk of developing heart disease.

Trans fats are found in many processed foods such as deep fried foods, some takeaway meals, commercially baked goods like pies, pastries, cakes and biscuits. Spreads and margarines can also contain trans fats, however here in Australia almost all margarines have only a very small amount. When buying any of the products listed above, check the labels for trans fats which may be described as ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable fats/oils’.

The Heart Foundation recommends replacing saturated and trans fats with mono and polyunsaturated fats in the diet.

When we eat more than our body needs, all fats can cause weight gain. Fat is higher in energy (kilojoules) than any other nutrient, such as protein or carbohydrate. Eating less saturated and trans fats may help lower your risk of having high cholesterol levels.

Fat is needed in our diet as it provides us with fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. A diet low in saturated fats and trans fats, that includes moderate amounts of unsaturated fats will help you achieve or maintain good health. Ensuring that your diet contains sufficient omega-3 fat from foods like fatty fish will also help obtain a good mix of essential fatty acids.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide nutrition and dietary advice on the most appropriate type and amount of fat to eat each day.