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Fat facts: a simple guide to dietary fats

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There are a few different types of dietary fats and while some promote good health, others do the opposite. Learn how to spot the difference and why your wellbeing will thank you for it.

Fat is an essential part of the diet and plays a key role in many of the body’s processes, so rather than simply trying to avoid it, a better plan is to swap less healthy types of fat with healthier ones. 

Achieving that can be as simple as making a few dietary tweaks, as well as putting a variety of healthy foods on the menu each day. Here’s how to make it work. 

Why does your body need fat?

There are a few different reasons, including the fact that it supports cell growth, helps protect your organs, facilitates the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and assists with the production of some important hormones. 

A meal that contains a small amount of fat can also be tastier and will help keep you feeling fuller for longer, too. 

The short story is your body definitely needs fat to function well. 

Types of fats

There are three main dietary fats. Choosing the ‘right’ types can make a big difference to your wellbeing – particularly your heart health.

1. Unsaturated fats

These can help to lower cholesterol levels when they replace saturated fats in the diet. 

There are two main types:
  • Polyunsaturated fats

    These can be divided into two categories – omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Good sources of omega-6 fatty acids include Brazil nuts and safflower and soybean oils.

    Omega-3 fatty acds are found in some plant foods, like walnuts and flaxseeds, and seafood, particularly oily fish such as Atlantic salmon and sardines, but it’s thought that the omega-3s from seafood deliver bigger health benefits
  • Monounsaturated fats

    Found in olive and canola oils, avocados, and some nuts, such as cashews, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts

2. Saturated fats

These are considered one of the least-healthy fats, due to the way they increase levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol. Sources of saturated fats include fatty snack foods, like potato chips, deep-fried takeaways, processed meats like bacon and salami, and commercially manufactured products, like pastries, pies, cakes and biscuits. 

Saturated fats are also found in some foods that are good sources of key nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals. These include animal-based products, such as meat and some dairy foods

Some plant-derived products, including coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut cream, also contain saturated fat. 

3. Trans fats

These are created during the manufacture of many baked and processed foods, including pies, pastries, cakes and biscuits, as well as deep-fried foods and some takeaway meals. 

They also occur naturally in some foods, such as butter, cheese and meat. 

Like saturated fats, trans fats increase levels of bad cholesterol, but they also decrease levels of good cholesterol, making them particularly risky for heart health.

How much fat do you need?

Unlike some nutrients, recommended intakes of fat haven’t been set. Instead, for some types of fat, adequate intakes for general health have been established.

Women Men
Omega-3 from fish (EPA/DHA) 90 mg/day 160 mg/day
Omega-3 from plants (α-linoleic acid) 0.8 g/day 1.3 g/day
Omega-6 (linoleic acid) 8 g/day 13 g/day


These targets can be achieved by eating a handful of nuts every day, serving up fish two or three times a week, and using healthier oils for cooking and dressings, such as olive oil, canola oil or safflower oil.

It’s also recommended that no more than 10 per cent of your daily kilojoules should come from saturated fat, and less than one per cent from trans fats.

For someone eating an ‘average’ number of kilojoules, that means taking care not to eat more than 23g of saturated fat – which is how much half-a-cup of coconut cream contains – and no more than 2.5g of trans fat a day. But less saturated and trans-fat is always better.

 

Dietary advice for a healthy heart

Unflavoured full-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are now an option for healthy Australians, while the limit has lifted on the number of eggs that can be eaten per week for heart health.

But the Heart Foundation says many Australians need to rethink how much red meat they’re eating, as evidence indicates it increases risks for poor heart health and unwanted gains when it comes to our waistlines.