In the increasingly health conscious world in which we live, the focus on healthy eating has grown considerably. But, despite this, the commonly-held perception of fats is that they simply should be avoided. To some degree this is true, for some fats contribute directly to known health problems including obesity, heart disease and cancer.
But not all fats are damaging. In fact, some are essential to our health and can reduce the risk of serious illnesses from afflicting us. Reducing our intake of harmful fats and increasing the good fats (in moderation) which can help us to live our lives more healthily and could lessen the chance of becoming ill in future.
Reading the labels on food containers is one useful strategy to help us to understand what we are eating but with fats falling into numerous categories – saturated, trans fats, polyunsaturated, hydrogenated – it can be remarkably confusing knowing the difference between them. This simple guide will help you to know your fats and make decisions about healthy eating more knowledgably.
Essential for absorbing some vitamins and calcium and for the correct functioning of the immune system, saturated fats can be found in meat, butter, cheese, coconuts, avocados and palm oil. They can also have other benefits for the body including improving skin conditions such as eczema and increasing your energy levels. However, too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol which may lead to serious health conditions, particularly affecting the heart.
Polyunsaturated fats can help to lower your cholesterol level and are to be found in sunflower and safflower oil, fish oil, peanuts, grains and soybeans. However there is little nutritional value in these fats and many dieticians advise limited consumption
Associated with some serious health issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, it is perhaps surprising that trans fats do not currently have to be legally displayed on food packaging, though if pressure from the Food Standards Agency pays off, this may change.
Fast food, biscuits, cakes and full-fat margarine all contain high levels of trans fats which, if eaten beyond moderation, can elevate cholesterol levels in the blood. They are also found in small amounts in beef, lamb and dairy products but are not believed to contribute to poor health in these sources.
Omega-3 fats are regarded as essential fatty acids: the body needs them for health and vitality but is unable to produce them by itself. Therefore aim for a diet rich in fish (trout, mackerel, tuna and salmon, for example), some nut oils and derivatives of some plants (flaxseed, walnuts and rapeseed oil among others). Omega-3 fats are essential for brain development, in particular cognitive function, and may lower the risk of chronic disease. Low omega-3 intake can lead to depression, fatigue, poor memory and dry skin.
Occurring in oils (olive, rapeseed, walnut and peanut) and in avocados, monounsaturated fats may reduce harmful cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the level of high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL). The higher the HDL level, the lower the harmful cholesterol so a high HDL level is recommended.
Overconsumption of hydrogenated fats can increase harmful cholesterol levels, so keeping a watch on the amount of biscuits, cakes, pastries and margarine that you eat is a sensible way to limit the intake of this fat.
Monitoring the types and quantities of each fat that you consume in your diet is a logical way to improve your overall health, so understanding (and not just reading) the nutritional information on food packaging it vital. In summary, saturated fats (in moderation) and omega-3 fats are essential to healthy living while polyunsaturated, hydrogenated and trans fats should be limited as much as possible.
This article comes to you from CS Healthcare a specialist provider of flexible health insurance to those that work, or have worked, in the civil service, public service and not-for-profit sector, including their families.
This article is intended as general information only. If you or a family member have any medical concerns, please contact your GP or medic.
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Jacquie Brown is a frellance writer specialising in fitness and well-being.