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A matter of FAT

Fat… such a small word, and yet one that has certainly created enough of a stir in the nutrition world to warrant a little investigation.

A hot nutrition topic in South Africa of late, a high fat diet was recently advocated at the National Obesity Forum in the UK. Unlike in South Africa, however, this notion was quickly dismissed as dangerous advice. A few weeks later, came the results of a US study, 3 decades in the making, to support the fact that saturated fats and trans fatty acids  consumed in excess of what is recommended results in premature death; specifically related to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Important to note is that, these excess saturated fats and trans fatty acids are best replaced with unsaturated fatty acids, as opposed to carbohydrates, to reduce the risk of disease.

We need fat in our diet to ensure we can optimally absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K but a closer look at fat reveals that all fats and all oils have individual fatty acid compositions. Fatty acids are divided into saturated, trans, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. With regard to brain health and development and optimal brain functioning, the benefit of fat in the diet is determined by the degree of saturation and the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. These omegas are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Humans cannot produce these essential fatty acids which means we need to consume them regularly in our diet. DHA and EPA are the omega 3’s we (all ages) should be consuming for brain, eye and heart health. ALA found in canola oil, canola margarine, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts and soy bean products can be converted into DHA and EPA, making them worthwhile inclusions in the diet because achieving an adequate intake of DHA and EPA requires at least 2 fish meals a week with fatty fish being best.

5 tips to omega enrich your diet

  1. Use canola oil for recipes that call for oil, but avoid frying
  2. Add ground flaxseeds to oats porridge (ground seeds can be stored in the fridge for 3 months)
  3. Practice fish Friday (think grilled hake serve with smashed beans and salad)
  4. Use tinned salmon, pilchards or mackerel at least once a week
  5. Dress salads with flaxseed oil infused with crushed mustard seeds and herbs

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the recommended intake for saturated fat, found in animal foods including butter, remains less than 20 g per day or less than 10 % of total daily energy consumed. Reading labels helps to identify the presence of saturated fat and reveals the fat profile of packaged foods.

Fueled by the Banting craze, the far spread belief that seed oils are high in trans fats and genetically modified has earned seed or vegetable oils the label “toxic”. In contrast to this theory, an analysis of seed oils produced in South Africa revealed the trans fatty acid content of the raw oils to be less than the upper limit of 0.5 %. WHO’s recommended limit of trans fatty acid intake is less than 1 % of total energy consumed (2.5 g per 8000 kJ). To exceed this recommendation, the consumption of olive oil in excess of 1.25 L would be required.

Furthermore, canola oil is not in fact genetically modified. Through a specialized breeding programme, canola oil was created to gain the fatty acid benefit from rapeseed minus the toxicity of erucic acid. This also deems canola oil safe for consumption rather than ‘toxic’.

I also feel it important to mention that margarine is not plastic. While many argue that margarine is only one molecule away from plastic, that is simply the beauty of science. One molecule difference can mean a great deal. Is a single oxygen molecule not the only difference between water and hydrogen? If that is not enough to convince you, the simple truth is that you can make margarine at home. And for the coconut oil fans, margarine is in fact made from a combination of coconut and vegetable oils to achieve a desirable ratio of omega 3 to 6, the essential fatty acids we need, absent in butter. Non-hydrogenated margarines and oils are a cost effective source of essential fatty acids. Soft, tub margarine is better than brick margarine and when baking, most recipes will survive the substitution of brick margarine for canola oil. It is a very worthwhile trade.

Before radically eliminating or adding foods based on trend, it is important to note the potential nutritional benefits that will be dismissed in their absence or excess. For example, while coconut oil, growing in popularity, has been found to increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels, its 0.9 mg of vitamin E per 100 g pales in comparison to the 17.5 mg of vitamin E found in 100 g of canola oil. Almonds, another highly advocated fat source, may be a vitamin E rich alternative to canola oil but are not affordable to everyone. On that note, coconut oil is also expensive by comparison to seed oils.

The quality of fat we consume is more important than the quantity because individuals differ in this regard. Removing visible saturated fat from meat and chicken while avoiding deep fried foods and reused oil, will go a long way to improving the nutrient profile of your diet. Including plant fats such as avocado, olives, olive oil, seeds and their oils, nuts and their butters, fatty fish and coconut oil as meal additions is necessary to achieve the much needed benefit of fat in the diet. It is up to you to find the most appropriate and practical use for the various fats offering varying nutrient properties.

South Africa has legislation in place to protect consumers from fats dangerous to our health. And with the new food labeling laws, sodium reductions and trans fats legislation, we can be confident that efforts are being made when it comes to foods manufactured by South African food companies. It is the deli counter and the office canteen that should concern you the most.

Using avocado as a healthy fat source

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