Updated 26 July 2012

Do we need fats?

The answer is, yes, but we should not eat too much, and we should know which fats are good for us, and which fats are bad.

The answer is, yes, but we should not eat too much, and we should know which fats are good for us, and which fats are bad.

How much fat?
Food from the meat, fish and egg group are derived from animals and can easily push up both the total amount of fat, and the amount of saturated fat, we consume.

A great deal of research has been carried out to determine the role that fat plays in a whole range of degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

The basic message that has emerged, is that human beings should take care not to eat too much fat as a whole, and to cut down on the amount of saturated fat in their diets.

Most people should probably cut down their intake of fats like margarine and salad oils to 1-2 tablespoons a day.

Different types of fat
Depending on their chemical composition and the effect they have on health, fats can be divided into various categories. And no, not all fats were created equal.

Fats are divided into four main classes, namely:

  • Saturated
  • Monounsaturated,
  • Polyunsaturated,
  • Essential fatty acids.

According to their effect on the body and health, some fats are worse than others. In this regard fats can be divided into:

  • Bad fats = Saturated fats and cholesterol. In cream, butter, lard, bacon fat, meat fat, chicken skin, and also in hard or brick margarine.
  • Good fats = Mono- and polyunsaturated fats. In sunflower, safflower, canola and olive oils, soft or tub margarines and nuts.
  • Essential fats = Omega-3 and omega-6 fats. In fish, omega-3 enriched eggs, flax, canola and soybean oils.

"Bad fats"
Generally speaking, saturated fats and cholesterol, are regarded as the "bad fats", which are linked to heart disease and cancer.

These fats are found in animal products (cream, butter, lard, bacon fat, meat fat, chicken skin), and also in plant fats that have been saturated by a process called hydrogenation, e.g. hard or brick margarines.

When plant fats are processed or exposed to very high temperatures, their chemical composition is altered and so-called 'trans-fatty acids' are formed. These trans-fatty acids have been found to be very harmful to human health and should be avoided.

Don't reheat frying oil and avoid foods that contain hard, saturated fats such as brick margarine, pies and other baked goods that don’t specify what kind of fat has been used in the recipe.

"Good fats"
Mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in sunflower, safflower, canola and olive oils, soft or tub margarines and nuts, are regarded as "good fats".

The idea is to replace as much saturated fat in the diet as possible with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils.

These fats and oils can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, but they should still not be eaten in large quantities because it is not desirable to push up the total fat content of the diet. So when you select 1-2 tablespoons of fat a day, choose margarine with a high poly- or monounsaturated fat content (read the labels), and use olive or sunflower oil over salad.

Essential fatty acids
There are certain important fatty acids which we cannot manufacture in our bodies and have to obtain from our diets - these are the essential fatty acids, i.e. omega-6 and omega-3.

Because western diets contain quite a lot of omega-6, derived from the soft margarines and salad oils mentioned above, we need to concentrate on ingesting sufficient omega-3.

In addition to fish and omega-3 enriched eggs, flax, canola and soybean oils are rich sources of the fatty acid. Try to use at least one teaspoon of these oils per day.

Fats and obesity
Fats and oils are highly concentrated sources of energy and each gram will provide 37 kJ of energy to the diet.

In other words, one tablespoon of salad oil (which weighs 15 g) will contribute 555 kJ of energy to your daily intake. Anyone who is trying to lose weight, should therefore reduce their fat intake and restrict their intake of fats and oils to one tablespoon (= 3 teaspoons) of mono- or polyunsaturated margarine or oil per day.

The most important thing to remember when choosing fats and oils, is to use very small quantities and to concentrate on the "good fats", and foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids.

– (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)


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