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Dietary fats

4-minute read

Fats are important for a healthy diet. But some are better for you than others. It's best to choose foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 and 6. Eating too much saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, will increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol.

What are fats?

Fat is a kilojoule-dense nutrient needed for energy and to help absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. There are different types of fats.

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol levels. There are 2 types of unsaturated fats:

  • polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats (found in fish, nuts, and safflower and soybean oil, for example)
  • monounsaturated fats (found in olive and canola oil, avocado, cashews and almonds, for example)

Saturated fats

Normally solid at room temperature, 'sat fats' are often in dairy foods (butter, cream, full-fat milk and cheese), meat, coconut milk and cream, palm oil, cooking margarine, snacks like chips, cakes, biscuits and pastries, and takeaway foods. Consuming more than the recommended amount of saturated fat is linked to heart disease and high cholesterol.

Trans fats

Trans fats have been processed so they 'behave' like a saturated fat. Trans fats increase the levels of 'bad' cholesterol and decreases the levels of 'good' cholesterol in the body, which increases the risk of heart disease. They can be found in butter, margarine (in small amounts), deep-fried and processed foods, cakes and pastries.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat that comes from foods such as eggs and is also found in your blood. The 2 main types of cholesterol are: 'good' HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol; and 'bad' LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

However, eating foods that contain any type of cholesterol won't actually raise your body's cholesterol levels. Eating saturated or trans fats is far more likely to give you high cholesterol.

Are fats good for you?

Healthy fats are unsaturated. They keep cholesterol levels within a healthy range, reduce your risk of heart problems and may be good for the skin, eyes and brain. Unsaturated fats are the best choice for a healthy diet.

Unhealthy fats are saturated and trans fats, which can raise levels of 'bad' cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease.

You only need to consume small amounts of any dietary fat, since it contains a lot of kilojoules. Over-consuming dietary fat can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

How to include healthy fats in your diet

To stay healthy, less than 10% of the total energy (kilojoules) you take in should come from saturated fat, and less than 1% should come from trans fat.

Check food labels. Choose products that are higher in poly- and monounsaturated fats. Avoid foods that contain 'hydrogenated oils' or 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oils' since these contain trans fats.

What are the best foods to eat?

Opt for foods that are high in unsaturated fats, which increase levels of 'good' cholesterol (HDL) and help lower levels of 'bad' cholesterol (LDL). These include:

  • avocado
  • almonds, cashews, peanuts, pine nuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts
  • cooking oils including canola, olive, peanut, soybean, rice bran, sesame and sunflower
  • spreads made from soybean, sunflower, safflower or canola
  • fish, especially tuna, salmon, sardines and blue mackerel
  • tahini
  • linseed (flaxseed)
  • chia seeds

Avoid foods that have higher levels of unhealthy fats. These include:

  • processed meats (such as bacon, ham, salami and frankfurts)
  • butter and cream
  • crisps and chips
  • pies and pastries
  • takeaway pizza
  • takeaway burgers
  • fried foods (e.g. spring rolls)
  • biscuits, doughnuts, muffins and cake
  • chocolate
  • ice cream

Healthy-eating tips

  • Use extra virgin olive oil in cooking.
  • Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats; for example, use avocado, tahini, nut or seed butter instead of dairy butter.
  • Eat fish, especially oily fish, twice a week.
  • Consume legume- or bean-based meals twice a week.
  • Snack on nuts or add them to your cooking.
  • Throw avocado in salads.
  • Choose lean meats and trim any fat you can see (including chicken skin).
  • Use table spreads that have less than 0.1g of trans fats per 100g.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2019

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