Spoiler alert!!!! Avoid being fooled by our headline and before grabbing yourself a meal of fried sausages and bacon please continue reading. Indeed, if space permitted the headline would’ve read: Why we need fats in our diets (… the right kind) and how to include them in our diets. And if you continue until the end we have a bonus recipe for you as well!
With blame increasingly being pointed towards carbs for weight gain and more people following the keto diet, fats are still feared by most of who like to think of themselves as healthy eaters.
Contrary to popular belief, like any other food group or nutrient, fats alone are not to blame for weight gain or any nutrition-related disease. However, there’s a lot of confusion and misconceptions about the nutrient from how much fat is too much to what kind is the right kind? So, let me simplify it for you.
Why do we need fats?
Fats are just as essential in our diet as protein and carbohydrates. Fat is a macronutrient meaning that we need it in larger quantities than other nutrients like vitamins and minerals (which are micronutrients). Fat is the structural component of cell membranes and is essential for the growth and maintenance of cells and for the production of hormones, which can dictate how we feel. Fat is also required to help us absorb fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, which work to support the health of our cells, tissues, hair, skin and nails. Some fats are essential e.g. omega 3 fatty acids, and these provide our bodies with an abundance of health benefits from improving heart health to ensuring optimal brain functioning.
Just like other macronutrients, fats also provide us with energy but are more energy dense hence often being blamed for weight gain. Fats pack 9kcal per gram (for perspective, both protein and carbohydrates provide 4kcal per gram) and current recommendations advise that fat should make up between 20-35% of your energy intake. For example, if your calories for maintenance are 1800kcal, fats should provide 360-630kcals, which equates to 40-70g of fat per day.
What are the different types of fat?
There are two main categories of fat – these are unsaturated and saturated fat, or better known as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ fat respectively.
Unsaturated fat can be further divided into monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, and this simply relates to the amount of double bonds in the structure of the fatty acid.
Monounsaturated fats include the likes of avocados, olives and their oil, almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats also provide us with omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to play a vital role in our brain, hormonal and immune health. Foods such as wild salmon and other oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are all sources of omega-3 fatty acids, however, it is best to get omega-3 fatty acids directly from fish sources as the forms of DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are the types of omega 3 fatty acids that the body utilises best) are more bioavailable.
Whilst plant-based sources of omega-3 like flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are all high in omega-3 fatty acids, they contain a type known as ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) that must be converted to either EPA or DHA in the body to be utilised for its functions other than energy. However, our bodies are not efficient at this so only a miniscule amount of EPA or DHA is gained in this conversion.
Saturated fat is mostly sources through animal products such as meat and dairy and also in plant oils, which are solid at room temperature; like coconut and palm oil. Current guidelines recommend that less than 10% of our diet consists of saturated fat and less than 2% for trans fats. Trans fats, as the name suggests, are fats which have undergone changes to its chemical structure and hence their properties are altered. Highly processed foods like margarine and pastries are often very high in trans fats.
I know what type of fat to include more of, but how much should I have?
The exact amount of fat will majorly depend on your lifestyle, your health and fitness goals, activity levels and overall health status. As a guide, it’s recommended that our combined fat intake is between 20-35% of total daily calories, but this may not suit everyone. In periods of low intakes of fat, the liver can still synthesise cholesterol, which it needs to carry out important functions in the body (cholesterol creates bile salts that are essential to lipid absorption and transport). However, the body cannot create essential fatty acids such as omega-3, which is why we need to source these in our diet.
There’s no need to fear or remove fat from your diet. If anything, try to include more of the right types and slowly reduce your intake of saturated fats. Be mindful that fat contains more than twice the number of calories than carbs and protein, and you only need small amounts of good quality foods high in fat to reap the benefits.
Bonus recipe: Seedy Granola Bars
These bars are both energy and nutrient dense, providing plant-based protein, essential fatty acids and plenty of fibre. They’re perfect to suit those ‘lockdown 2.0’ baking urges and also to have as snacks in the fridge to grab in between zoom meetings. Tag me on Instagram if you give these a go @ellekellynutrition
250g natural nut butter of choice (cashew works really well in this recipe but peanut butter and almond butter work great too)
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
80g pumpkin seeds
50g milled flaxseed
50g chia seeds
50g sesame seeds
80g goji berries or dried cranberries
3 tbsp toasted coconut flakes
200g quinoa puffs or flakes (can be swapped for more oats)
150g maple syrup or agave
2 scoops protein powder (can be omitted)
- Combine the oil with nut butter and sweetener of choice in a saucepan over a low heat until a liquid is formed.
- Add the remaining ingredients until the mixture becomes sticky but holds when pressed down.
- Line a baking tray with parchment paper and press the mixture (or what is left after ‘tasting’) into the tray .
- Set in the fridge for at least 4 hours before removing and slicing.
- Store in the fridge.