Families are bombarded with pre-packaged and highlyprocessed foods that contain a variety of good and bad fats. It’s well worth working out which are good and which are bad to help you make wise decisions at the supermarket.
Many of us eat too much of the wrong kinds of fat and quite often, too little of the healthy types. In terms of health, not all fats are created equal, so here’s what you need to know.
What is fat?
Fat is mainly used by the body as energy – it provides 9 calories a gram, more than twice as many calories per gram as either carbohydrate or protein. If fat surplus to energy needs is eaten, it is stored in the body as … fat (which can later be converted into energy if needed). Fat is also needed because it carries the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E and supplies essential fatty acids.
Fat is made up mainly of fatty acids and glycerol, fatty acids being by far the largest component. Fatty acids can be divided into three main groups: saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids. Another fourth related group is called trans fats.
Raising bad cholesterol
Saturated fat is the kind that is usually solid at room temperature and is found in largest quantities in animal produce such as meat, cheese, cream, milk, eggs and butter, as well as in manufactured goods such as pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and milk chocolate. Research has shown that a diet high in saturated fat can raise levels of the bad cholesterol LDL (low-density lipoprotein). LDL is a major risk factor in heart disease, and may also be linked to cancer and obesity.
Most trans fats in the diet are unsaturated fats which have been altered (hydrogenated), usually in food processing. Not only do trans fats increase the level of bad cholesterol, but also lower the level of good cholesterol, as well as potentially increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. They are found in significant quantities in many mass-produced baked goods, such as biscuits, cakes and take-away foods.
Lowering bad cholesterol
Monounsaturated fats are found in greatest quantities in olive oil, rapeseed oil, olives, avocados and many nuts. They are also present in most dairy produce, eggs, fish, meat and many other types of food. Monounsaturated fats are shown to reduce the level of LDL cholesterol. Oils high in monounsaturated fats are also often rich sources of the antioxidant vitamin E.
Polyunsaturated fats are the last type of fat. Vegetable oils, such as corn oil, sunflower oil and walnut oil, are high in polyunsaturated fats, as are most nuts. This type of fat has been shown to lower LDL blood cholesterol. A certain amount of polyunsaturated fats in the diet is necessary as they contain essential fatty acids.
It would be unhealthy (not to say virtually impossible) to try and remove all fats from one’s diet, as these essential nutrients can not be produced in the body from other compounds. They need to be obtained from our diet and consumed in small amounts, or to come from supplements.
Essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 are a family of “healthy” (polyunsaturated) fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are recognised as dietary essentials for healthy hearts and healthy minds. They play a crucial role in memory and brain performance, as well as in normal infant and child growth and development. We need a good dietary supply throughout our lives.
Fish, flaxseed and walnut oils are the most concentrated sources of omega-3. The two most beneficial types of omega-3, known as EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid respectively), are concentrated in oily coldwater fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and herrings. A third type, known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), is found in plant oils such as flaxseed, canola, soybean, pumpkin seeds and walnut. However, ALA is less beneficial as it needs to be converted by the body into EPA and DHA.
For full benefit, adults are recommended to consume 500 milligrams of omega-3 fish oil a day – which represents about two to three 150 gram portions of oily fish every week. Children up to about the age of 14 easily get their recommended omega-3s from one small piece, around 100 grams of fish, and two small cans of salmon or tuna a week.
While food sources are always better for good nutrition than supplements, EPA and DHA fish oil capsules are a good alternative for people who have been asked to increase their omega-3 fatty acids intake but don’t like oily fish. For a vegetarian source, you can try marine algae or flaxseed oil.
Supplementary fish oil capsules should not be given to children unless advised by a GP. Always have any dietary supplements checked by your doctor, especially if you are taking prescription medicines, have specific health conditions or are pregnant.
Some of the foods that are good sources of omega-3s and essential fatty acids include:
- Sunflower oil
- Walnut oil
- Sesame oil
- Linseed (flasseed) oil
- Evening primrose oil
- Brazil nuts
- Pine nuts
- Pistachio nuts
- Sunflower seeds
It can be tricky to get children to eat fish. Some love it; some just will not touch it. If your kid is part of the latter squadron, mixing it into a dish – as I have done with these salmon and potato cakes – may be just what you need to do. Additionally, they are also a good source of essential fatty acids. Fun to look at and delicious to eat, even the most reluctant child is likely to enjoy them.
Salmon and potato cakes
- 2 potatoes
- 1 × 210g / 1 × 7½oz tin salmon in brine
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- a few black olives
- 1 tablespoon tomato sauce
Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Grease a large ovenproof tray. Peel the potatoes. Place in a steamer and cook for 10 minutes or until tender.
Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the sunflower oil and lemon juice. Process into a purée.
Mix in the egg and parsley. Finally, drain the salmon and crumb with a fork, making sure to remove any bones. Add to the potato mixture.
Spoon out a small amount of this mixture and use your fingers to shape each cake into a fish. Use small pieces of olives to make the eyes and tomato sauce for the mouth.
Place the salmon cakes onto the prepared tray and bake for 25 minutes or until golden. Serve warm with a side of grated raw vegetables.
Christelle Le REuCookbook author & mum of four www.christelle-leru.com