If there’s one area of nutrition that seems to cause more confusion than any other it’s fat. Questions people ask me about fat include:
It’s completely understandable. A while ago low-fat diets were quite the thing and weight loss was all about carbs. We were constantly being told that eating animal fats would give us all a heart attack, but olive oil was OK. Then Dr Atkins told us we should scoff meat, cream and butter and avoid carbs to lose weight – and look what happened to him! Is it any wonder people are so bewildered?
The truth is that it’s sugar, not fats, that is your main enemy in the healthy eating war; but we’ll park sugar to one side for now while I tell you a story. Years ago I had a friend (let’s call her Gladys) who went on the Rosemary Conley diet, which is very low in fat. Gladys was a bit chubby and had a new boyfriend she was keen to impress. She stuck to the diet religiously, and weight did indeed start to fall off. Unfortunately, after a couple of months, so did her skin. Gladys didn’t make the link between eating a virtually fat-free diet and her skin becoming all scaly and dry, but fortunately her doctor did. She began to eat healthily again and the problem went away.
The point I want to make here is that we need fats as part of a healthy diet – not just for our skin, but also our joints, our heart and many important bodily functions such as forming cell membranes, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, supporting the immune system and enabling our bodies to absorb certain vitamins more efficiently. But which ones should we be eating? I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible.
You’ve probably heard talk of omega fats or fatty acids – and maybe been confused by those too. Basically omegas 3, 6 and 9 are the good guys, so we need to get all of those down us on a regular basis. Omega 3s are the ‘oily fish’ fats we hear so much about, found in fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon. It’s good to have a couple of portions of these each week. Other sources are walnuts, seeds and fortified eggs – good news for veggies. Omega 6s mostly come from vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn oil, and to be honest it’s not difficult to get enough of these, especially as they’re used in many processed foods. Omega 9s are also in various oils, particularly olive and rapeseed, and also in avocadoes and nuts such as almond, pecans and macadamia. Of course you can take a supplement to get these nutrients, but I always think it’s better to get them from eating healthy foods. Worryingly, a recent study appeared to make a link between omega 3 supplements and prostate cancer, although the study didn’t analyse the subjects’ diets or whether they had actually taken any supplements.
Current thinking is that it’s fine to eat butter in moderation, and I must admit I usually do this with my Sunday breakfast of cinnamon and raisin toast! The most important fat rule is to steer well clear of the dreaded trans fats, which have been hydrogenated into sheer nastiness and raise your levels of bad cholesterol. Thankfully they are being used less and less these days, but do check labels if you’re buying manufactured products like biscuits, cakes and pies. It’s also best to avoid ‘low fat’ versions of higher fat products; you already know my views on dairy. The fat has usually been replaced by sugar or nasty fillers, so they’re actually worse for you than the originals. You’re better off with a delicious creamy Greek yoghurt and some fruit than a Muller Chemical Corner – check out the list of ingredients!
I always think an easy way to get some good fat into your system – especially at this time of year – is to knock up a really tasty salad dressing using a mixture of good oils plus either a wine or cider vinegar. I also put some mustard and mixed herbs in mine, but you could add chilli, garlic, lemon or whatever takes your fancy. Home-made dressing is also free of the emulsifiers and preservatives usually found in the shop-bought versions too. And if you aren’t mad about salad it does make it more of a pleasure to eat! You could grill some sardines to go with it, or make some houmous with a good olive oil.
And why not swap your usual afternoon biccies or chocolate bar for a small handful of mixed nuts? Every cell in your body will thank you for it.
So don’t fear the fat – good fat is your friend!