Understanding Food Labels; Part 4, Fats

The most energy dense of the macronutrients weighing in at a whopping 9kcal for every gram, fat is often seen as the evil lord of the macronutrients often getting bad press in the media compared to its more glamorous counterparts protein and carbohydrate. So is fat inherently bad and should you eliminate it from your diet altogether ? Unfortunately fat is also one of the most misleading of the macronutrients when it comes to food labels with so many confusing and often contradictory terms used by manufacturers to mask their less than ‘healthy’ claims.

How much should I have? Well again per 100g (3.5 ounces) of your food here are some guidelines;

A lot = 20g of fat / 100g or 5g of saturated fat / 100g

A little = 3g of fat / 100g or 1g of saturated fat / 100g

Saturated fats are found in animal fats and palm oil or palm kernel oil and serve very little benefit to the body aiding only to raise LDL cholesterol and ultimately risk of heart disease. However cutting out saturated fat entirely is impractical and doing so will eliminate the absorption of many essential fat soluble vitamins (A, D and E) associated with animal meats.  Hydrogenated or Trans Fatty acids are the real evil fats. Formed as a result of a hardening of vegetable liquid or vegetable oils these fats found in many biscuits, cakes, desserts or processed foods have a debilitating effect on cholesterol levels, lowering the good HDL and raising the bad LDL levels. In the UK and US manufacturers are starting to move away from the use of these Trans Fats (often labelled Hydrogenated fat) due to their strong link to coronary heart disease.

Monounsaturated fats are a healthy source of fat, having a lowering effect on the bad LDL cholesterol. Foods such as olive oil, avocados, soya oil, peanuts, cashews, almonds and sesame seeds are all great sources of monounsaturated fats.  Polyunsaturated fats also have beneficial effects for lowering risk of heart disease; According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) “The most effective replacement for saturated fatty acids in terms of coronary heart disease outcome are polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially linoleic acid (omega 3)”. Foods containing polyunsaturated fats include nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds, sunflower oil, corn oil and safflower oils.

Omega 3 fats are commonly referred to in the media and advertising as the healthiest source of fat. Omega 3 oils are essential for brain development, nervous system function, maintaining a healthy immune system, and keeping a healthy heart and circulation. Omega 3 oils can be found in oily fish, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds and oils, flax seeds and oils and rapeseeds and oils. 

Research suggests that Omega 3 may well have a beneficial role in fat metabolism, especially during exercise. It is thought that Omega 3 may stimulate the enzymes that are responsible for transport of fat to exercising muscles. So paradoxically enjoying a diet including fat (omega 3) may well help you burn some fat off. Omega 3 is such a widely researched area at the moment and for every journal reporting benefits of the oil many also return little or no health benefit.  

Certainly if healthy living or weight loss is your goal then go easy on the saturated fats, choosing foods that are beneath the limits set out above is a good place to start in the aisles. As a rule of thumb any processed / convenience food will be high in saturated fat. Incorporating seeds and nuts (which also contain protein and fibre),  fresh fish and plenty of vegetables and fruit into your diet will almost certainly help you feel better, look better, work better and probably smell better (well possibly?)