Updated: Mar 17
Do you know that for optimal health around 30-35% of your daily calories should come from fats? Fats are a major food group, an important energy source and pivotal to our health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, they often get a really bad press, perhaps because of a fear they will make us 'fat' and unhealthy.
It's true fats are calorie dense, so we have to mindful of how much we eat, but not all fats are equal from a health perspective.
Saturated fats should be eaten in small amounts as too much can adversely impact cardiovascular health. Ideally no more 20g of saturated fat per day, if you're consuming around 2,000 calories per day.
Saturated fats mainly come from animal products such as meat, butter, lard, ghee and dairy products, but you also find them in cakes, pastries, biscuits and other processed foods. Saturated fats can have an inflammatory effect on the body and increase levels of the more harmful types of cholesterol. The one exception in saturated fats is coconut oil, which although a saturated fat, is considered to have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Unsaturated fats, which are mainly found in plant foods are very beneficial to our health and can help lower our risks of many lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Nut, seeds, avocados and olives are all good sources.
We should include good amounts of monounsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil in our diet, which contains antioxidants and has incredible anti-inflammatory benefits. It's one of the reasons a Mediterranean diet is so good for us.
Polyunsaturated fats are another important and healthy type of fat to include in our diet, but there needs to be a good balance between omega 6 and omega 3.
Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, safflower, sunflower, soy and vegetable oils and foods made with these oils. If eaten in excess, some research suggests they can cause inflammation, so just be mindful and ensure you eat a range of fats and oils, so these don't play a dominant role in your diet.
When hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, it creates hydrogenated (trans-fats), which are typically found in processed foods to extend shelf life. We should avoid trans-fats in our diet completely as they are toxic to our health and can raise levels of LDL cholesterol, the type we don't want in our diet.
Omega 3's or essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the real stars of the show. These anti-inflammatory fats are found mainly in oily fish, seeds and nuts like walnuts and support heart, brain, bone and muscle health. These tend to be the fats that are missing from most people's diets. If you're vegan or a vegetarian not eating fish , then you should look closely at how you can get sufficient omega 3 in your diet.
So what about 'low fat' foods, I hear you ask? It's true for many years we were told that we should opt for low fat foods. That fat was the baddy and all cholesterol was bad for us. Unfortunately, it made us cut back on all the healthy fats too and sent our consumption of sugar through the roof. (Food manufacturers took out that fat and added sugar). In Western countries at least, health outcomes only worsened as we ate more low fat foods. Always be cautious of 'low fat' foods, as they can contain a lot of sugar and do not always have the 'health halo' they promise.
Here's why we need fats:
Fats are an important source of energy for the body, protecting organs and helping our cells to function properly.
Fats can help to balance your blood sugars: Unlike carbohydrates, fats do not raise blood sugar levels so they are a great food group to include with your meals. They help to keep you satisfied when eating and keep your energy on an even keel throughout the day. Blood sugar management is one of the best approaches you can use to manage your health in midlife, supporting your body to minimise stress (and the production of stress hormones) and allow it to produce the hormones it needs.
Fat is used to make your hormones: If you're at any stage of the menopause (peri-to-post), you need fat to support your body's production of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Many of the symptoms associated with peri/menopause are caused by imbalances in hormones, so you want to make sure your body is producing them.
Brain health: Fats enhance your brain and nervous system, supporting mood, intelligence and behaviour. Fish is often referred to as 'brain food' and this is because of the Omega 3 EFAs, which boost alertness and improve brain function. As we progress through our 40s and 50s, cognitive health really is something to be thinking about.
Fat is also critical for the absorption of vitamins like A, D, E and K. All really important in their own right.
Fats support healthy skin, hair, and nails: It's true our skin can become more dry as we age and our hair can often thin too. Getting the right balance of fats in your diet helps with this.
Fats make your food palatable: If you add olive oil to your salad it makes it taste better right? Our foods would be pretty bland and uninteresting without fat. No-one wants to eat tasteless food do they! Food needs to be enjoyable.
The bottom line is fats are a vital part of our diet, particularly in midlife and really shouldn't be feared!
A guide to eating fats:
All fats are energy dense so be mindful of how much you use in cooking.
Opt for extra virgin olive oil and olive oil as much as possible in day to day cooking.
Cut back on snacks, biscuits and cakes, particularly ultra processed, which are high in saturated fat and often contain a lot of sugar and other polyunsaturated oils, which can push your fat consumption up!
Try to include 2-3 portions of oily fish per week e.g. salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, trout and pilchards, which provides EPA and DHA omega 3. Opt for fish from sustainable sources where possible.
Butter is really ok, but in small amounts - it tastes delicious too!
Seeds such as pumpkin, flaxseeds, chia and hemp are also good sources of ALA Omega 3. Add a sprinkle of them to your cereals and salads.
Coconut oil is a bit controversial since it is a saturated fat, but it is does contain healthy fatty acids.
Nuts are an amazing source of monounsaturated fats and ALA Omega 3 and highly nutritious, but be careful with serving sizes with nuts. A 25g portion is more than enough as a snack.
Avocado is a great source of fat, fibre and is rich in vitamins and minerals. Half an avocado in your daily diet is a great addition! Use it in place of butter on toast.
TIP: Store your fats and oils away from heat and light and store in a cool, dark place. When fats become rancid they produce free radicals that are damaging to the body, so make sure you use by the best before date too.
Get a nutritional review: It's really worth looking at your diet to see if you're getting the right amount and type of fats in your diet and particularly the right ratio of different fats in your diet e.g omega 3: 6 to optimise your health. On my Well Woman Packages, you get a detailed review of your diet and a set of recommendations to ensure you're getting the right balance of macro (fat, protein and Carbohydrate) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
NB: I would always recommend you look at ways to increase Omega 3 fats in your diet before considering supplements.