Updated 12 August 2015

Fat is good for you

Fat is good for you. The perception that all fats are bad is about to change as the experts all agree that it's the quality, not so much the quantity, of fat that really counts.


‘Fat is bad’. ‘Fat makes you fat’. We’ve all heard it a million times and have become so terrified of consuming fat that we’ve forgotten a few very important facts. Namely, that all fat isn’t bad, and that our bodies need certain fats to function optimally.

But changing perceptions is where it gets tricky. The myth that all forms of fat are tantamount to illegal drugs has been ingrained in society for so long that to change it will require more than a little convincing.

So here goes.

The experts agree: fat is not the baddy
Experts in the fields of dietetics, nutrition and health met in Johannesburg this week under the auspices of the International Union of Nutrition Sciences (IUNS) to discuss exactly what the role of dietary fat is, and how it can play a part in preventing major nutrition-related chronic diseases. Yes you read right, how it can help prevent certain chronic diseases.

The meeting was led by Dr Ali Dhansay (Chair of IUNS SA), alongside a scientific Steering Committee comprising Professor Marius Smuts (Centre of Excellence in Nutrition (CEN) at North West University), Rene Smalberger (President of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa) and Dr Petro Wolmarans, Senior Specialist Scientist in the Nutritional Intervention Research Unit of the Medical Research Council.

They agreed that South Africans are still very confused about dietary fat – what it is, how much is too much and what the difference is between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fat. And the proof they say, is evident from a quick glance at our poor food choices.

According to Dhansay, it’s this confusion and general ignorance that is contributing to a growing trend of chronic and degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

“Dietary surveys indicate that many populations around the world (both in developed and developing countries) consume excess saturated and trans fats, and a low proportion of essential polyunsaturated fats. This has serious consequences for the health and well-being of children and adults,” he said.

“People generally are not aware of the importance of the fat quality of their diet, and the sources of different fats. The general focus is on quantity of fat to control weight and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, but it should also be on fat quality,” said Professor Dhansay.

Separating the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’

The good news however, is that we’re not alone in our confusion , as Dhansay pointed the general consensus worldwide appears to be that fat is viewed negatively. It’s seen as bad, fattening, lacks in nutrition and is key cause of cholesterol problems and heart disease – a dangerous perception that’s even led some to exclude fat completely from their diets.

So what is a good fat and a bad fat, and why do we need them at all? Different types of fat are classified according to their chemical composition and the effect they have on human health when consumed, explains dietician Smalberger.

According to her, fat is very important for the body to function optimally. “The right fats are an essential part of the diet and are vital for vitamin absorption, energy and brain development and functioning. Polyunsaturated fats can in fact lower the risk of heart disease,” she said.

However, the key is to know which are ‘good’ fats and which are not so good – and how much to eat of each. It’s tricky but not impossible. Although all the experts agreed that labelling of foodstuffs was indeed still an issue that needed to be urgently addressed in order to help consumers read and understand food labels.

Quality over quantity

“Fat quality refers to the type of fats in the food that we eat. Foods with a low fat quality are foods with a relatively high content of saturated (unhealthy) fat as compared to good and essential (healthy) fats, whereas other foods have a more desirable fat quality, or a relative high content of good and essential fats as compared to saturated fats.

“One can recognise products with a good fat quality by the fact that they are spreadable or liquid even straight from the fridge, whereas foods with a low fat quality are usually even solid at room temperature, with coconut milk as the exception,” Smalberger says.

This is why, she adds, it’s vital for consumers to familiarise themselves with the various food sources of dietary fats. This way one should be able to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’.

However, she strongly advises against cutting out all fats from the diet since fats play an important role in the body. “The emphasis should rather be on limiting the bad ones, and making sure that you do have enough of the good ones in the diet.”

How much is too much?

Smalberger says the latest recommendations for daily fat intake and quality, in line with authoritative international health bodies and current evidence, are as follows for those from the age of about two onwards:

  • Total fat may provide up to 30% of the daily energy intake, provided the energy balance between intake and expenditure is adequate.
  • Saturated fat should provide no more than 10% of the daily energy intake. This means animal fats should be limited, or opt for lower fat choices such as low fat milk, low fat cheese, lean meat cutlets, and skinless chicken and good quality soft tub margarines.
  • In those at risk of cardiovascular disease the intake of saturated fat should be less than 7% of total daily energy. Try avoiding high fat meat and poultry, dairy products like cream, butter, and full and 2% milk, and some plant foods like coconut and palm oil.
  • Polyunsaturated fats, including essential fats like omega 3 and omega 6, should contribute between six and 10% of the daily energy intake.
  • Of this contribution, Omega 6 fatty acids should provide 5 – 8% of energy. Sources include vegetable oils and some tub margarines. In small amounts omega 6 fatty acids can keep skin and eyes healthy.
  • The remaining polyunsaturated fats contribution should come from Omega 3 fatty acids at between 1 and 2% of energy. Good food sources here include fatty fish such as sardines, salmon and herring, as well as mackerel, flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil and nuts, especially walnuts. In addition to lowering your bad cholesterol, these omega-3 fatty acids boost brain function and may help strengthen your immune system and improve your mood.
  • The intake of trans fats should be less than 1% of the daily energy intake. Foods traditionally containing trans fats include certain hard brick margarines, fried and baked potato chips, and certain commercially baked products and biscuits. Look out for the description “trans fats” or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on the food label – this pseudonym actually means trans fats. Trans fats are made from unsaturated fat that has undergone an industrial process that makes liquid vegetable oils more solid, and prolongs the shelf life of packaged foods. These fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, substantially increasing the chances of heart disease.
  • The remainder of the energy from fat should be provided by mono-unsaturated fats, from sources including olive oil and olives, canola oil, almonds, cashews, peanuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds, avocados or avocado oil, and soft or tub margarine made from canola or olive oil. These fats raise good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, and protect against the buildup of plaque in your arteries.

What your diet should look like

Taking this into account, an average 35 year old man with a height of 175cm and weight of 73 kg, or an average 35 year old woman 165 cm tall and weighing 58 kg, a typical good fat healthy daily intake could consist of the following:

  • Breakfast: 1 cup cooked oats porridge with 1 cup low fat / skim milk
  • Mid-morning snack: 1 Fruit and a few low fat crackers, or 1 fruit and a few nuts
  • Lunch: one to two whole wheat sandwiches with a suitable filling and soft tub margarine and one quarter of an avocado
  • Mid-afternoon snack: 1 Fruit and a few low fat crackers, or 1 fruit and a few nuts/ seeds mix
  • Dinner: grilled chicken without the skin, rice, butternut and a salad with balsamic and olive oil dressing.
  • After supper snack: 1 fruit or dried fruit

The conclusion

The message is clear – fat is not bad, it’s just a little bit misunderstood. Once you can familiarise yourself with which foods contain the ‘right’ fats that your body needs, you can take one step closer to healthy living and several steps away from chronic disease.

As Smalberger points out “A healthy lifestyle is like a budget – you don’t just go around spending money and hope that you’re within your budget – it takes a little effort and monitoring to get it right.”

References: Dr Ali Dhansay, Chair of IUNS SA, alongside a scientific Steering Committee comprising Professor Marius Smuts of the Centre of Excellence in Nutrition (CEN) at North West University; Rene Smalberger, President of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa and Dr Petro Wolmarans, Senior Specialist Scientist in the Nutritional Intervention Research Unit of the Medical Research Council.

Read more: 

Kiss those bad fats goodbye
Still confused about fats?
Omegas: what you should know


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