Why do we need to eat fat?
Fat! Don’t be scared of it… You actually need it in your diet. Fat doesn’t directly make you “fat” – excess calories make you “fat”. It’s about getting the right balance.
Fat has had bad press, to the extent that some foods are designed and marketed as ‘fat-free’. But it isn’t all bad. In fact, getting some fat from our diet is absolutely vital.
In this section, you will find out what fats are, why we need them, what they do for us and where we find them in our foods.
Why do we need fat?
Virtually all natural foods contain some fat. It is in foods because both plants and animals use fats as the most economical way to store energy. It is needed for their growth, development and function when there is a shortage of food supply (or a shortage of sunlight in the case of plants).
Certain specific dietary fats have other essential functions. We are much like other animals so we do actually need some fat from our diet to survive. And while in general, as with most things, too much fat is bad, a certain amount is perfectly compatible with good health.
What is fat for?
- A source of energy – Our body uses the fat we eat, and fats we make from other nutrients in our bodies, to provide the energy for most of our life-functions
- Energy store – The extra calories that we consume, but do not need to use immediately, are stored for future use in special fat cells (adipose tissue)
- Essential fatty acids – Dietary fats that are essential for growth development and cell functions, but cannot be made by our body’s processes
- Proper functioning of nerves and brain- fats are part of myelin- a fatty material which wraps around our nerve cells so that they can send electrical messages. Our brains contain large amounts of essential fats
- Maintaining healthy skin and other tissues. All our body cells need to contain some fats as essential parts of cell membranes, controlling what goes in and out of our cells
- Transporting fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K through the bloodstream to where they are needed
- Forming steroid hormones needed to regulate many bodily processes
Where do we find fats in our foods?
The fats that we eat in our foods are mostly “triglycerides”. These are made up of 3 (hence “tri”) fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule.
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as meat, cheese, milk, butter, cream and eggs.
Did you know? Animals being warm-blooded incorporate some saturated fats into tissues to keep them more solid. Cold-blooded fish, and plants, however cannot include much saturated fat because they would become too stiff. However some oils from tropical plants such as palm oil and coconut oil do contain some saturated fats.
The main unsaturated fats are monounsaturated, found particularly in foods such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, peanuts and avocados.
Polyunsaturated fats are mostly found in plant foods such as nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, and in cold-blooded sea-foods. In natural foods, they come protected with antioxidant vitamins. There are two main classes polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. These include the essential fatty acids. Oily fish (e.g. herring, salmon and mackerel) is a good source of omega-3, while omega-6 is mainly found in plant foods such as sunflower oil and rapeseed oil.
Trans fats can be natural or artificial. They are mostly artificially created through a process known as hydrogenation (which involves heating and chemical structure change). Artificial trans fats are mostly found in fast foods, fried foods and commercial baked products such as cookies and are the most unhealthy fats (even worse than saturated fats!). Natural trans fats can be found in small amounts in milk and beef, and in quite large concentration in cheese.
Now, we understand that we do actually need some fat in our diet for survival and in the end, it is all about getting the amount and the right balance!