Oils, good or bad fats?

Gone are the days when all fat was maligned and held responsible artery clogging and early death.

These days, we’re being told fat is good – well, certain types of it, at least.

The theory is that fat is satisfying and filling – reducing hunger pangs after eating.

It’s also vital for absorbing nutrients from other foods, plus healthy skin and optimum brain function.

But it’s crucial to eat the right fats – or you could do more harm than good – not only to your waistline, but your long-term health.

What exactly are omega fats?

Fats can be split into two groups known as saturated and unsaturated.

The latter consists of two further groups known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are often referred to as ‘healthy fats’.

The omegas are groups of fatty acids that fall into these two categories and are classified as omega 3, 6 and 9.

What are omega 9 fatty acids then?

Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats that fall into the monounsaturated group.

The primary fatty acid in this group is called oleic acid and can be found in plant-based foods that include avocados, olives, olive oil and nuts such as cashews, walnuts, pistachios, pecans and almonds.

This particular fatty acid has been shown to help promote cardiovascular health by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats

Almonds for a key part of the cholesterol-lowering Portfolio diet and olive oil is renowned for its positive effect on health and is a major component of the much praised Mediterranean diet.

Olive oil
Olive oil

Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are also a group of unsaturated fats but they fall into the polyunsaturated group.

Unlike omega 9 which can be made within the body, the other two cannot and must be obtained from the diet, which is why they are referred to as being essential.

How about those much-hyped omega-3s?

So, the omega 3 group of fatty acids are made up of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

The most nutritionally significant are EPA and DHA.

They have a key role to play in the body, which includes forming a structural component of cell membranes, so getting adequate amounts from the diet is pretty important.

There has been a huge amount of research surrounding these two fatty acids and if you did a Google search you could be led to believe they are the antidote to every health concern under the sun, a modern day ‘snake oil’.

Once eaten, omega 3 fatty acids (and omega 6) go through a series of chemical reactions.

These convert them into compounds that contribute to several important physiological roles.

One such pathway leads to the formation of hormone-lie substances called prostaglandins and in the case of omega 3, these are anti-inflammatory.

This means they help to reduce inflammation in the body, which is thought to be at the root of many chronic diseases.

A great deal of the research has highlighted the positive effect they can have on improving cardiovascular health which is affected by inflammation – the effect of an overactive immune system can over time can cause damage to the body.

Other health benefits of omega 3 include the positive effect they can have on mood, skin and inflammatory conditions.

The main source of omega 3 is oily fish – but food surveys show that a significant number of people fail to eat any at all, let alone meet the Government’s recommendation of one portion per week – which means low intakes of omega 3.

Now, what about omega 6?

The omega 6 group of fatty acids are also vitally important and used for normal brain function, growth and development.

However, in order to meet these requirements only a small amount is required – and as omega 6 is abundant in so many foods, getting what you need is of little concern.

However, achieving a healthy balance of omega 3 to 6 is considered to be healthy and we tend to eat way more omega 6 than omega 3, which may contribute to the risk of disease.

This is because once you have gleaned the omega 6 your body requires, the excess begins to undergo a conversion to another type of prostaglandin that encourages inflammation in the body.

Research shows that over time the body can enter a state of low-grade inflammation that causes the immune system to remain ‘switched on’ and over long periods of time this could be detrimental to your health.

It’s also unlikely you would know this was happening, as the inflammation itself would not cause any obvious symptoms.

So what can I do?

The simplest way to start rebalancing your omegas is to address the type of oils and fats you use on a daily basis.

Many of us are trained to choose polyunsaturated margarines and cook with oils such as sunflower, which are rich in omega 6 (a result of the long standing guidance to reduce saturated fat in the diet).

However, you’re better off sticking to olive oil for everyday use (this is mostly omega 9) and coconut oil for high temperature cooking (this is all saturated fat known).

Cutting out processed food can also help – and of course upping your intake of oily fish.

ALA, or Alpha Linoleic Acid, is the final omega 3 fatty acid you need.

This can be found in foods such as green veggies, quinoa and seeds.

DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish that are essential as the body can’t make them ‘in house’.

While ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, our ability to carry out this conversion is poor.

So while foods such as seeds and seed oils – such as chia – are often promoted as being high in ALA, relying on these foods alone will not provide you with enough of the more important EPA and DHA.

Not great news for vegetarians, vegans or those of you who dislike oily fish!

What about supplements?

For those of you who don’t eat oily fish then a good quality supplement containing EPA and DHA can be beneficial.

These supplements are also available in a form suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

Try Healthspan’s Opti Omega 3, 1000mg (£10.95 for 60 capsules) which contains optimum levels of DHA (276mg) and EPA (220mg).

Fat back in the good books

Warnings we’ve been given about fat for the past three decades were not based on satisfactory evidence, and have left us open to other dietary enemies fueling the obesity crisis.

If expert advice 30 years ago had worked, we would not be facing the obesity crisis we are now dealing with in the west.

Guidlines released in 1983 advised people to reduce their fat intake to 30 per cent of their total energy (calorie) intake, with a maximum of 10 per cent made up for saturated fat – but experts have now claimed that this advice should never been issued.

So while we’ve been avoiding full fat dairy, the demonisation of fats also seems to have left us vulnerable to other dietary no-nos – carbohydrates and sugar.

Experts looked at the data that was available at the time the guidelines came out, and stated: “It seems incomprehensible that dietary advice was introduced for 220 million Americans and 56 million UK citizens, given the contrary results from a small number of unhealthy men.

“The results of the present meta-analysis support the hypothesis that the available (randomised controlled trials) did not support the introduction of dietary fat recommendations in order to reduce (coronary heart disease) risk or related mortality.”

The fact that so many Brits and Americans are still overweight or obese seems to be proof enough that the expert guidelines we’ve been fed for three decades were no good. And after being told fat’s the enemy for so long, it’s hard to adapt to new suggestions that actually foods we’ve always eaten in abundance are what’s causing our expanding waistlines.

Published in the online journal Open Heart, the paper concluded: “Dietary advice not merely needs review; it should not have been introduced.”

But before we start guzzling fatty foods, experts have warned that we still have to keep an eye on the fats we’re eating.

Studies have shown that too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels which ups the risk of heart disease and heart attack – but unsaturated fat doesn’t need to be maligned in the same way.

So What Can We Eat Now?

Carbs, sugar and processed foods we’ve relied on for easy meals now carry the biggest warnings, but we still have to be wary of the kind of fats we eat, so what is allowed?

Well, experts have been encouraging us for the past few years to change our attitudes towards food.

Instead of refined carbs such as white bread or pasta, which have had all their fibre and many of their nutrients stripped out before they get to our plates, we should opt for whole grains such as brown pasta, wholewheat bread and quinoa.

And they should make up just a small section of each meal – a hard thing for spaghetti bolognese lovers to deal with.


Instead, each meal should mostly consist of vegetables.

But obviously vegetables won’t keep us full or give us enough energy to get on with life, so you’ll need to add protein options – lean meats, poultry, cheese, tofu or fish are all good, healthy options. And ‘good fats’ including nuts and seeds, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.

And What Shouldn’t We Eat?

You’ll have heard it all before, but the new enemy – based on research – is sugar. And it’s found in everything from bread to fizzy drinks. It’s also found naturally in fruit and juices, which have been traditionally seen as super healthy, so here’s where it gets more confusing.

Try to limit your sugar intake. Check packaging for added sugars and cook meals from scratch. Manufacturers often add sugar (and salt) to improve the taste of foods after they take out fat (for our 0% fat obsession based on the old, wrong guidelines), so try and avoid processed and packaged foods where possible.

Cut out fizzy drinks and try to get your fruit intake from whole fruits rather than juices. If you do want a juice, stick to one a day.

When it comes to choosing your carbs, avoid huge portions of white bread, pasta and rice.

And fat-wise, it isn’t all a green lit – we still need to stear clear of food such as deep fried chicken and grease-laden chips, and anything processed from fast food chains is still to be severely limited!

It’s a bit re-education for everyone but if we get it right, we can start to reverse the devastating spread of obesity with all its associated health risks.