For years we were told that we should eat low fat foods and that eating too much fat would make us fat. We are now seeing more and more advice that advocates eating ‘good’ fats and doing so every day. So what is the truth and what should we be doing? We are going to start by looking at what we need fat for and what will happen if we don’t eat enough.
Why we need to include fat in our diet and what happens if we don’t get enough
Fat is essential for many processes that take place in our bodies. On a basic level fats allow your body to absorb nutrients, fuel your muscles and to promote satiation. Without fat our bodies can’t absorb vitamins A, D, E and K which are essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot make. These are stored in our liver and fatty tissues creating a reserve for when we need them. If we are not eating enough then the stores become depleted and we may start to see some of the following effects on our bodies and health.
If we have insufficient vitamin A then we will have very dry skin, slower bone growth and night blindness. It can lead to a compromised immune system making it harder to fight off infections.
If we don’t have enough vitamin D our body will not be able to absorb calcium which will impact the strength of our bones and can cause them to become dry, brittle and therefore more likely to break. A lack of vitamin D can lead to joint and muscle pain and a compromised immune system. It can also affect mood with Seasonal Affected Disorder now a recognised condition for those not getting sufficient sunlight which is the main source of vitamin D. Alternatives include eggs and oily fish which are both good sources of fat.
Vitamin E is essential for our immune system and our skin. Without vitamin K our blood cannot clot.
Fats help the brain to produce serotonin and dopamine. Insufficient levels will therefore affect your mood and your ability to get a good sleep. It can be harder to concentrate and a lack of Omega 3 can cause mood swings and depression. You can suffer from increased stress levels, anxiety and from low self esteem. There is a link between omega 3 and our cardio function and increasing our intake is believed to help improve the quality of life for Alzheimer sufferers.
A diet too low in fat at the extreme can contribute to anaemia, a loss of periods, infertility and bone loss.
What are the signs of too little fat in your diet?
- You may often feel depressed or angry and struggle to control your mood swings
- You could always feel hungry as fat contains more calories per gram than the other macronutrients and therefore makes you feel fuller for longer.
- You may have trouble concentrating and feel agitated
- As you get older you may have problems with your vision
Why are we so scared of eating fat?
I know that many of you worry about eating fat after so many years of being told that it is bad for us. We have seen scares about the amount of saturated fat in eggs, the trans fats in processed foods and diet plans that make avocado a forbidden food given its high fat content. We have been told to eat low fat yoghurts and to use margarine spreads instead of butter. Dry frying or using a 1% fat spray are common in most diet plans. So what do we need to do and where do we start?
Taking a sensible approach to fat
My starting point is always that any diet that suggests cutting out a food group is flawed. Bodies are complex and need a variety of nutrients to work efficiently. We have already looked at the implications of not eating enough fat so here is a sensible approach to getting the balance right. It is important to get the levels right as any fat that is not used by the cells in your body or to create energy will be converted into body fat.
If you eat around 2000 calories a day which is ‘normal’ for a woman then around 400-700 of these would ideally come from fat. Given that there are 9 calories in a gram of fat that equates to between 44 and 78 grams of fat each day. The advice is that around 10% of this can be saturated fat as a maximum.
So what does 78g of fat look like?
To help you get an idea of the what you would need to eat to consume that amount of fat, here are some foods and how many grams of fat they contain.
1/2 an avocado = 15g
2 tbsp. of Organic Peanut Butter = 22g
23 almonds = 14g
1 egg = 5g
1 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil = 13g
1 salmon fillet = 9g
I like Rhiannon Lambert’s description of what a balanced plate looks like in her book ‘Re-Nourish.’ She says that it would include a palm of protein eg fish or meat, 1 handful of carbohydrates such as rice, oats, starchy vegetables and fruit, 2 handfuls of non starchy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and peppers and 1 thumbnail of healthy fats eg olive oil, butter, coconut oil and nut butter.
We need to be looking at increasing our Omega 3 fats as these are usually eaten in much smaller amounts and found in less commonly consumed foods like oily fish, flaxseed and walnuts. We should then be reducing the saturated and trans fats that we consume and increase the healthy poly and mono unsaturated fats.
What fats are in our food?
There are 2 types of fat that can be found in food.
-Triglycerides – dairy, nuts, seeds, meat
– Cholesterol – eggs, liver, butter
High levels of LDL cholesterol in our blood can lead to accumulation in our arteries resulting in an increased risk of heart disease. HDL is the good cholesterol which is carried to the liver where it is removed from the body.
Here are the fats that we need to be eating and the foods that they are found in.
Mono unsaturated fats – these protect our hearts by maintaining good levels of HDL cholesterol whilst reducing the bad LDL levels. Good sources are olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, almonds, brazils and peanuts.
Poly unsaturated fats – Omega 3 plays an important role in brain function and is thought to help you to fight against cardiovascular disease. Good sources are oily fish such as mackerel, kippers, herring, trout, sardines and fresh tuna. Alternatives are flaxseed, soy beans and walnuts. Omega 6 is important for brain function and can be found in oils such as rapeseed, corn and sunflower. It is thought that we need twice as much Omega 6 than Omega 3.
Saturated fat – this should be limited to 10% of our fat intake. Saturated fats play a key role in our cardiovascular health, for calcium to be effectively utilised in our bones, to protect the liver from alcohol and medications to name a few. It is solid at room temperature and can be found in meat, dairy, eggs and coconut oil.
Daily Fat intake
We have established that our bodies need fat and that there are a multitude of things that can go wrong if we don’t get enough on an ongoing basis. We need to have a mixture of the different types of fat with a focus on mono unsaturated, twice as much omega 6 and omega 3 and less than 10% of the total to be made up of saturated fat. For someone consuming 2000 calories a day this would mean around 78g of fat as a maximum. You should aim to include some fat with each meal aiming for a thumbnail size portion.
Here are some ideas for ways of incorporating fat in to your meals.
- Have a smear of nut butter on your toast for breakfast
- Slice an avocado with your salad at lunch
- Handful of nuts or seeds with your fruit as a snack
- Avocado spread on toast with poached or scrambled egg – could also serve with salmon or mackerel
- Olive oil dressing on your salad
- Flaxseed Granola for breakfast
- Use butter in sandwiches rather than low fat spread
- Full fat plain yoghurt with fresh fruit. Low fat versions tend to be full of sugar instead
- Eat oily fish twice a week
- Houmus on oatcakes as a snack
I hope that has given you some clarity on the approach that we need to be taking with fat in our diet. It is essential for our health and well being and deficiencies can bring a multitude of serious problems. I would love to know whether you agree and to hear about what changes you will be making as a result of this post.
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