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02 Oct 2015

Not All Fats Are Made Equal

Fat has a bad reputation, with people widely associating it with obesity and disease. While the consumption of some fats can lead to problems, other fats are absolutely essential for a balanced diet. It's important to recognise the differences between fats in order to maximise your dietary intake, with specific fats essential for energy, brain function, vitamin transportation, hormone regulation, and healthy skin. From monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats through to saturated and trans fats, understanding good fats from bad can make a real difference to your health and well-being.

In order to differentiate good fats from bad, you need to understand the difference between fat and cholesterol. While most fats have a fairly simple chemical make-up, cholesterol is a very unique and chemically more complicated type of fat, or fatty substance. It's a fairly complicated process for our body to make cholesterol, with excessive intake known to cause a range of health problems. While our bodies need cholesterol to help build cells and regulate hormones, it's important to differentiate between LDL from HDL, the lipoproteins needed to carry cholesterol around the body.

LDL cholesterol is considered "bad", with this form of cholesterol contributing to plague, clogging arteries, and increasing the chance of heart attack or stroke. HDL is the "good" cholesterol, with this substance essential for removing LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver. In contrast to LDL, high levels of HDL cholesterol have actually been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. The healthy consumption of fat is all about regulating LDL and HDL levels in order to experience the benefits of fat without the associated problems.

Trans fats are the worst type of dietary fat, with this substance made from a by-product of a process known as hydrogenation that turns healthy oils into solids. Trans fats increase the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduce the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol, with these fats having no known health benefits and no safe level of consumption. Trans fats are found in fried foods, baked products, margarines, ice cream, and a range of other processed food products.

Monounsaturated fats are generally believed to be good, with these fats found naturally in many food products. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL and increase HDL, with these fats found in canola oil, olive oil, olives, avocados, and many nuts. The situation around polyunsaturated fats is more complicated, with these fats including both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-3 fatty acids are known to prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke, the consumption of omega-6 fats can be harmful. Polyunsaturated fats include fatty fish, sunflower oil, corn oil, and some nuts including walnuts and pecans.

Saturated fats have been getting a lot of attention lately, with opinion slowly changing on how these fats interact with the human body. While the saturated fats found in butter, cheese, and fatty meats have been getting bad press for a long time now, saturated fats raise both LDL and HDL levels, making them good and bad at the same time. While saturated fats were initially assumed to cause heart disease because they raise cholesterol in the blood, this link has been found to be inconclusive at best. New evidence suggests that saturated fats are neutral and may even be positive, especially when consumed in moderation as a replacement for trans fats and processed polyunsaturated products.

Image source: Lucas Sevilla Garcia/