For decades we have thought of fat as the enemy and looked for ways to banish this essential food group from our diets. However, the fact is we need healthy fats for proper nerve, brain and skin cell function, to protect vital organs in the body and to help control body temperature. Fat supplies us with essential fatty acids that we can’t manufacture ourselves and helps our body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K from food plus it affects the production of hormones and provides us with energy.
Fats with proven health benefits include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega 6s and omega 3s). But, unfortunately at the other end of the scale are unnatural trans fats – the actively bad fats with no nutritional content and have even been proven to cause disease.
Saturated fats however, sit in between. In moderation, and when obtained from whole food sources such as grass-fed beef, coconut oil and high-quality dairy products, saturated fats can prove to be a beneficial part of a balanced diet and ensure proper brain health, nerve function and cell membrane health – not to mention they also help growing children feel satiated.
There’s an ongoing debate about the optimal fat intake, and while research is still continuing, it’s been accepted that ‘good’ fats are important for all of us. Not all fats are created equal but here’s a quick glance at the ones that are beneficial, harmful fats and those that are fine in moderate amounts.
These are the fats associated with the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. They’re known to reduce bad cholesterol, lower risk of heart disease, normalise insulin levels and stabilise blood sugar levels.
Best sources: Avocado, extra virgin cold-pressed avocado oil, olives, extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil, macadamia nuts, extra virgin cold-pressed macadamia oil.
Omega-3s are known as essential fatty acids because they are essential to vital biological processes in the body. We are not able to manufacture them ourselves, so we must include them in our diet to reduce bad cholesterol, decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Deficiency can cause dry skin, eczema, lethargy, weakened immune system, hormonal imbalances and depression. A lack of these fats can also impact performance on reading tests and working memory and may add to symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. A diet rich in these protective fats may also help to prevent heart disease, arrhythmias, stroke and reduce blood pressure.
Best sources: Oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines and mackerel, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, egg yolks and dark green leafy vegetables. Ensuring your meat is grass fed and grass finished (i.e. not grain fed just prior to being slaughtered) will help too.
As with omega-3s, our bodies are unable to make this essential fatty acid and consuming it in the right quantity can help to protect against heart disease, eczema, ADHD and certain allergies.
Best sources: Meat, poultry, eggs, sesame seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, linseed, green leafy vegetables, borage and evening primrose oils.
These are the product of hydrogenating vegetable oils which makes them solid at room temperature and prevents them from spoiling. They’re universally accepted to be harmful, increasing the danger of heart disease by increasing the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol and decreasing beneficial HDL cholesterol, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and stroke. There’s really no debate – trans fats do not belong in our bodies.
Sources: Processed foods, especially confectionery, pastries, shortening, French fries and store-bought cookies. Anything deep-fried, some margarines, vegetable shortening and snack foods like potato chips. A very small amount of trans fats can occur naturally in meat and dairy products too.
There has been a lot of controversy about the role of saturated fat and heart disease. In the past, experts warned that too much saturated fat (primarily found in meat and dairy products) could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, recent findings are suggesting that there is no clear evidence that directly links saturated fat to heart disease. In the case of children, saturated fat – when eaten in moderation and obtained from wholefood sources such as grass-fed beef, coconut oil and high quality dairy products – can prove to be a beneficial part of a balanced diet and ensure proper brain health, nerve function and cell membrane health. Growing children need it as part of a well-balanced diet to help them feel satiated.
Sources: Coconut oil, pasture-fed beef, lamb, organic chicken, turkey and eggs, whole dairy products.
Words by Mandy Sacher, paediatric nutritionist, author & founder of Wholesome Child
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.