Building blocks of good health: fats and oils

June 30, 2015

Fats and oils can be part of a healthy diet, but it’s important to understand the different types as not all are beneficial. Check out these 12 tips for a healthy approach to including fats and oils in your diet.

Building blocks of good health: fats and oils

Striking the right balance

Our bodies need the right balance of essential fatty acids to build strong, flexible cell membranes. For good health, choose unsaturated fats (generally from vegetable sources and fish) rather than saturated fats (mainly from animal-based foods, fast food and baked goods), which may increase the risk of heart disease.

  1. Avoid eating too many saturated fats from foods such as fatty meats, cakes, biscuits, pastries, pies, butter and lard. These fats are solid or semi-solid at room temperature and may increase the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
  2. Choose monounsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils and polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower and safflower oils, which are liquid at room temperature. Fats and oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids are the best. These include walnut, linseed and mustard seed oils.
  3. Eat more oily cold-water fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel. They contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for a healthy nervous system, help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and contribute to keeping arteries flexible. A fish meal can be quick and easy, too – simply stir smoked salmon through cooked pasta and sprinkle with chopped dill and black pepper.
  4. Minimize consumption of full-cream dairy products, which contain saturated fat. Consider skim or low-fat milk and yogurt, cottage cheese and ricotta.
  5. Try to minimize your consumption of animal fat. Remove the skin from poultry, where most of the fat is stored.
  6. Take 15 millilitres (1 tablespoon) of cold-pressed flaxseed oil daily as a supplement or use the oil to dress a salad or steamed vegetables. Flaxseed contains almost twice the amount of omega-3 found in fish oils, but of a different type.
  7. Avoid cooking or buying deep-fried foods. At home, grill or stir-fry using oil with a high smoking point, such as safflower, corn, soybean, olive or macadamia.
  8. Read the packaging to avoid hidden fat, especially in processed food, cookies and canned soups. When possible, avoid or minimize your consumption of dripping, lard, copha, palm oil, shortening, milk solids, cream, coconut oil and cocoa butter.
  9. Be aware that "oven-baked" and "toasted" processed foods can be high in fat. When possible, avoid anything that contains hydrogenated or trans fats, which are saturated fats.
  10. If you like eating chips but would like to avoid the fat, switch to a baked variety. Or try rice crackers or air-popped popcorn.
  11. Always read the labels on processed foods. Compare the saturated fat content of similar products to help you make healthier choices.
  12. Use light olive oil for stir-frying. It produces fewer free radicals than some oils when heated and contains antioxidants.

Understanding the terminology

When it comes to fats and oils, these terms come up frequently, so it's good to understand what they mean.

  • Antioxidants diffuse free radicals and protect cells from damage. Many of the phyto-chemicals present in plant foods act as antioxidants.
  • "Bad" cholesterol (LDL) sticks to the walls of your arteries, restricting blood flow. Eating too much saturated fat increases your blood level of LDL.
  • Free radicals are molecules that roam your system causing cell damage. Found naturally in your body, they are also produced by external influences, such as sunlight and pollution.
  • "Good" cholesterol (HDL) mops up the "bad" cholesterol. HDL can be increased by regular exercise and weight reduction.

As with most health-related issues, being well informed and practicing moderation are two of the keys to making fats and oils a healthy part of your diet.

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