Confused about fat? You are by no means alone. The notion that fat is fattening has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for decades. We have become a nation of fat-phobes; opting for "low fat" and "fat-free" food products wherever they are available. Butter has been vilified, shunned in favour of margarines that boast an ability to be able to lower cholesterol and reduce risk of heart disease. We gasp at the sheer indulgence of eating full-fat Greek yoghurt. And then, all of a sudden (or seemingly so; the truth is that many experts have been crying this from the rooftops for years), we're told to ditch the marg and dig out the butter dish from whichever deep dark corner in the cupboard it has been gathering dust. Fat, we are told, has been wrongly vilified. Not guilty of its original conviction. Millions of consumers, led to believe that fat content is what they need to be scrutinizing when they scour food labels, have instead been opting for sugar-filled, processed, but supposedly healthy "low-fat" equivalents. And, as a consequence, our intake of both sugar and processed foods has sharply risen, in correlation with increased rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
So where does that leave fat? Can we freely indulge to our hearts content?! Well not exactly (as we will go on to discuss); but what we do know is that fat has an absolutely crucial role in the health of our entire body. It provides both a concentrated source of energy, and the essential building blocks for every cell in the body. The consumption of dietary fat is crucial for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and it contains essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) which are vital for good cardiovascular and brain health. Fat also improves the taste and texture of food, and is important for satiety (it fills you up!). In fact, when it comes to weight loss, dietary fat has a crucial role to play; it helps to boost the metabolism and our body's ability to burn body fat.
Don't run off to the fish & chip shop quite yet though! There is one type of fat that all scientists and health professionals agree should be avoided (and a unanimous agreement is rare in the world of nutrition), and these are the "trans" fats, found in deep-fried foods and many processed foods, bakery products and margarines. These heat-modified and industrially-modified fats are completely void of nutritional value, and have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. How can you avoid them? By carefully reading the labels on processed foods and looking for the phrases "partially hydrogenated", "hydrogenated" or "shortening, and by cutting back on deep-fried and processed foods.
This still leaves us with a huge array of fats to choose from- butter, coconut oil, olive oil and flaxseed oil- to name just a few. And even for the most health savvy amongst us, in can be confusing to know which one to choose. The following guide is designed to help you to select the right type of fat for different dishes and cooking methods-
As a salad dressing- Extra virgin olive oil- Olive oil is the richest source of monounsaturated fat- shown to lower blood pressure and improve heart health. It is also rich in phenolic phytochemicals- compounds with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to which olive oil to choose, quality is extremely important. Always choose cold-pressed extra virgin which has been extracted from the first pressing of the olives, without the use of heat, yielding the highest levels of these beneficial nutrients. Avoid refined or "light" olive oils, which have often been extracted with solvents, treated with heat or even diluted with cheaper oils like soybean and canola oils.
You can also choose - Nut oils such as walnut, almond and flaxseed - These oils have a distinctive rich taste, and can make a delicious dressing. They provide a good source of omega-3 fatty acids which we know provide a wealth of very important health benefits. Nut and seed oils should NEVER be heated, as these fats are very delicate and will be damaged by heat. For the same reason, always keep refrigerated.
For curries & stir-fries- Coconut oil - Coconut oil is fantastic for frying because it is resistant to high temperatures- meaning that it doesn't oxidise and become damaged when heated, whilst retaining all of its nutritional properties. Coconut oil provides a wealth of health benefits. It contains a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides which are unique in the way they are metabolised- going straight from the digestive tract to the liver, where they provide a quick source of energy for the body and brain. Coconut oil is also rich in lauric acid which has important anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties; important for both digestive and immune support.
For roasting - Cold pressed virgin rapeseed oil - Another great cooking oil (and a good alternative if you don't want a coconut flavour to your cooking), rapeseed oil can be heated to high temperatures without it smoking or burning, and the fats becoming damaged. It is another rich source of monounsaturated fats, and also high in vitamin E- especially important for heart and skin health. Make sure you always choose cold pressed virgin variety (and British if possible); other forms of rapeseed oil can be very highly processed.
As a spread- Organic grass-fed butter - Butter has been demonized by health professionals for many years due to its high saturated fat content. However, in the light of recent research, experts are suggesting that it is our switch from saturated fat to a diet high in carbohydrates (especially processed carbs and sugar) and vegetable oils that has, paradoxically, increased our risk of heart disease. Grass-fed butter is a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins A, D, & K. It is also rich conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to help lower body fat percentage in humans; and a type of fat called butyrate, which supports digestive health.
You can also choose - Raw nut butters (almond, cashew, walnut) - High in protein and a good source of omega-3 fats and vitamin E, magnesium and zinc.
For baking- Organic grass-fed butter or Coconut oil - Both rich in saturated fat; these fats are stable and resistant to damage at high temperatures, unlike other vegetable oils.