The Essential Guide to Healthy Fats
Updated: Oct 24
Nourishing Your Body and Boosting Well-being
How Can Fat Be Healthy?
When it comes to fats, there is often confusion and misinformation. However, not all fats are created equal. In fact, healthy fats are an essential component of a balanced diet and play a crucial role in supporting overall health and well-being. In this blog, we will explore what healthy fats are, why they are good for you, and highlight the unhealthy fats that should be limited in your diet.
What are Healthy Fats?
Healthy fats, also known as unsaturated fats, are a type of dietary fat that provide essential nutrients and offer numerous health benefits. They are found in plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and avocados. Unlike unhealthy fats, which we will discuss later, healthy fats can be a valuable source of energy, aid in nutrient absorption, support cell growth, hormones and contribute to brain function.
Types of Healthy Fats
Monounsaturated fats: Found in olive oil, avocados, nuts (such as almonds, cashews, and peanuts), and seeds (such as pumpkin and sesame seeds), monounsaturated fats are known to promote heart health by helping to lower bad cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated fats: These fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. They have anti-inflammatory properties, support brain health, and contribute to a healthy heart. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils (such as soybean, sunflower, and corn oil), as well as nuts and seeds, and are important for growth and development. The standard western diet is often overly abundant in omega 6 fatty acids and lacking in omega 3 fatty acids causing imbalance.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
Vegetarian and vegan diets offer a plethora of health benefits, but when it comes to obtaining omega-3 fatty acids, it's important to pay attention to alternative sources. While fish and seafood are commonly associated with omega-3s, plant-based eaters can turn to omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) sources. Vegetarian sources include chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. However, it's worth noting that the conversion of ALA to the active omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is relatively poor in the human body.
To ensure sufficient intake, vegetarians and vegans can consider supplementing with algae-derived omega-3 supplements. Research suggests that algae-based omega-3 supplementation can be an effective method for increasing EPA and DHA levels in individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets. Algae-based supplements provide a direct and sustainable source of EPA and DHA, bypassing the need for conversion, making them an excellent choice for those following a plant-based lifestyle seeking to optimise their omega-3 levels.
The Benefits of Healthy Fats
Heart Health: Consuming healthy fats in moderation can help reduce the risk of heart disease by improving cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, and reducing inflammation.
Brain Function: Healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, are crucial for brain health and cognitive function. They support memory, focus, and overall mental well-being.
Nutrient Absorption: Certain vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, are fat-soluble, meaning they require dietary fat for proper absorption. Including healthy fats in your meals helps maximize the utilisation of these essential vitamins.
Satiation and Weight Management: Healthy fats contribute to satiety and can help regulate appetite, making you feel fuller for longer. This can aid in weight management by reducing overeating and unnecessary snacking.
Unhealthy Fats to Limit
Saturated fats: Found primarily in animal-based products like fatty cuts of meat, full-fat dairy products, and butter, saturated fats may raise bad cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease when consumed in excess. It's advisable to limit intake, choose leaner cuts of meat and opt for fermented dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and kefir.
Trans fats: These fats are formed through a process called hydrogenation, which turns liquid oils into solid fats. Trans fats are commonly found in fried and processed foods, margarine, and some commercially baked goods such as cakes and biscuits. They are known to raise bad cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. It's crucial to avoid or minimise trans fats as much as possible.
Healthy Fats in Midlife and Menopause
Increasing healthy fats in the diet can provide several benefits for older women in midlife and menopause:
Hormonal Balance: Healthy fats are crucial for hormone production, including sex hormones like oestrogen and progesterone. During menopause, when hormone levels decline, a diet rich in healthy fats can help support hormone synthesis, potentially alleviating some menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and mood swings.
Thyroid Health: Essential fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 play a pivotal role in supporting the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to its active form (T3) within the body. Additionally, healthy fats aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D, which is crucial for thyroid function. Moreover, they help to regulate inflammation, reducing the risk of autoimmune thyroid disorders.
Heart Health: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon and flaxseeds, have well-documented cardiovascular benefits. Heart health becomes increasingly important as women age, and including these fats in the diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease, a significant concern for postmenopausal women.
Brain Health: Omega-3 fatty acids are also known to support cognitive function and may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and conditions like Alzheimer's disease. This is particularly relevant for older women facing age-related cognitive changes.
Bone Health: Healthy fats can aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D, which is essential for calcium absorption and bone health. Maintaining strong bones is crucial during and after menopause when the risk of osteoporosis increases.
Weight Management: Contrary to the misconception that fats lead to weight gain, healthy fats can actually promote satiety and help control appetite. This can be beneficial for older women who may experience changes in metabolism and weight during menopause.
Skin and Hair Health: Healthy fats contribute to skin hydration and overall skin health. They can also help combat dryness and brittleness in hair, which can be common concerns during menopause.
Mood and Emotional Well-being: Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have been linked to improved mood and reduced risk of depression. This is important as mood swings and emotional changes are prevalent during menopause.
To increase healthy fats in the diet, incorporate foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish into their meals. It's essential to balance the intake of healthy fats with an overall nutritious diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Including healthy fats in your diet is vital for optimal health and well-being. The consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, provides a wide range of benefits, including improved heart health, brain function, and nutrient absorption.
On the other hand, it is important to limit the intake of saturated fats and completely avoid trans fats due to their negative impact on cardiovascular health. By making mindful choices and incorporating healthy fats into your meals, you can nourish your body, support vital functions, and promote long-term well-being.
Remember, moderation is key when it comes to fat consumption. Aim to include a variety of healthy fats in your diet while being mindful of portion sizes. As with any dietary changes, it's always best to consult with a qualified healthcare professional or registered nutritional therapist who can provide personalised guidance based on your unique needs and health goals.
Embrace the power of healthy fats as an integral part of a balanced and nutritious diet. By making informed choices and prioritising nourishing fats, you can optimize your overall health and enjoy the benefits of a well-rounded approach to nutrition.
Please note: This blog post is meant for informational purposes only and should not replace personalised advice.
Sarter et al. (2015): A study published in Lipids in Health and Disease investigated the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in vegetarians and vegans. The researchers found that vegetarians had higher ALA levels but lower EPA and DHA levels compared to fish-eaters. However, vegetarians who supplemented with algae-derived DHA had significantly higher DHA levels, indicating that supplementation can bypass the limited conversion of ALA to DHA in the body.