Fat has been demonised in our diets for too long. New research is showing that not only is it less dangerous than once thought, it also has nutritional benefits that are essential for our health
Small pieces of sourdough bread dipped in bright green olive oil and sprinkled with flakes of crunchy sea salt… A knob of creamy butter stirred into a risotto to make it silky and easy to swallow. A drizzle of slick avocado oil over a leafy green salad… These delicious dishes are high in fat, and I recommend each tempting, more-ish mouthful.
If there is one myth I would love to correct, it is that fat is bad for us. In fact, we simply cannot thrive without fat in our diet. Fat provides us with energy and supports cell growth; it shields our organs, produces important hormones and aids absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. And for the very young, older people and those recovering from illness, in particular, it provides a layer of padding that protects and insulates the body.
There are many different types of fat, and they’re definitely not all created equal. But before I get into the nitty gritty of saturated versus unsaturated, or the smoking point of oils (and why it matters), let’s take a moment to focus on the flavour that fat adds to a meal. As ever, use your own tastebuds as a guide – there’s absolutely no point in cooking with coconut oil if you don’t like the taste (I prefer it in small amounts, in a recipe like Keralan fish curry, as I find it can overpower subtle dishes). When you add oil or butter to a meal, it brings a richness and consistency that feels good in the mouth, stimulating the appetite and prepping body and mind to eat. That doesn’t mean you’ll consume more – the wonderful thing about fat is that it triggers a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, unlike simple carbohydrates that often leave you wanting to go back for more.
If you do need to increase your calorie intake – say, if you’re going through cancer treatment and don’t fancy eating much food, or you have lost weight due to illness and need to build it back up – then adding a little extra fat to your meals can be an easy way to do this. A swirl of cream in some soup, a knob of butter or a drizzle of oil over vegetables is all it takes.
So why not try some new types of fat, explore their flavours and lose any fear of fat you may be holding on to? Mealtimes will be all the better for it.
Extra virgin olive oil (oil that’s simply pressed from the olives and left untreated) is full of flavour – grassy, spicy, fruity. Use it in salad dressings, drizzled over pizza or steamed vegetables, or simply to dunk bread in. Light olive oil, which has been treated to reduce some of that flavour, is suitable for cooking.
Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Numerous studies have suggested a link between a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil and reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers are also investigating whether eating olive oil may help prevent the onset of cancer and dementia.
We’ve all seen golden fields of rape flowers in the summer. The oil produced from them is neutral in flavour with a high smoke point, which makes it a good option for cooking. I like to use cold-pressed rapeseed oil to sear and quickly pan-fry a piece of fish, such as mackerel.
Rapeseed oil is high in monounsaturated fat and the omega 3 fatty acid ALA, which can benefit heart health.
I love toasted crumpets topped with melting butter or beautiful home-baked buttery shortbread biscuits, so I’m certainly not one to avoid butter in my diet. Although chefs use it copiously when cooking, it can burn easily when heated, so it may be best to keep it for spreading and baking. Ghee, clarified butter used in many Indian dishes, has a higher smoking point and is ideal for sautéeing vegetables and spices for flavour-laden curries.
Butter is a saturated fat, which increases levels of both ‘good’ HDL and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in the blood. Unlike polyunsaturated fats, it doesn’t have a beneficial effect on heart health, however the message that butter and saturated fats increase risk of heart disease has changed in recent years. Current research suggests that it may have a neutral effect, and problems arise when saturated fat is replaced with low-fat, high-sugar alternatives.
I tend to think of coconut oil as a ‘Marmite’ flavour: you either love it or hate it. I find its coconut-flavour complements dishes such as gently spiced curries or simple stir-fries, with greens quickly wilted in the oil and given a kick with ginger and chilli. But it can overpower other foods.
There have been many claims that coconut is a superfood that may reduce risk of dementia, promote gut health and treat thyroid disorders. This is because it contains lauric acid (an essential fatty acid also found in breast milk) and higher amounts of medium-chain trigylcerides (MCTs), which have been linked to weight loss and metabolise more quickly than other fats (although studies have used 100% MCT in the trials; coconut oil contains just 13-15% MCTs). The American Heart Association has warned that coconut oil contains more saturated fat than butter and lard, while the British Nutrition Foundation has concluded there’s not enough evidence to make any health claim for coconut oil.
Nut and seed oils
Rich and toasty, these oils pack a serious flavour punch for salad dressings and drizzling – try hemp seed oil over a bowl of quinoa and steamed vegetables, sesame oil with Asian noodle salad, pumpkin seed oil with roasted carrots and beetroot, or walnut oil in a dressing for a warm salad with roasted squash. These oils have a low smoke point and shouldn’t be heated.
Just like the nuts and seeds they are pressed from, these polyunsaturated oils are packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Mild and with a hint of nuttiness, this oil doesn’t carry an avocado flavour. It has a high smoke point, which makes it ideal for sautéeing and roasting, but it can be enjoyed cold as a base for salad dressings and marinades, too.
This monounsaturated oil is a good option for heart health.
Cooking with fat
Every fat has a different smoke point – the temperature at which it begins to break down, creating a burnt or rancid flavour. It’s at this point that some of the health benefits of the fat can be lost, as beneficial nutrients are destroyed and harmful free radicals are released. For frying or roasting foods, choose a fat with a higher smoke point, such as rapeseed or sunflower oil.
All types of fat have the same calories: 9 calories per gram, compared with 4 calories per gram for protein and carbohydrates.
Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) can help improve blood cholesterol levels, protect against heart disease and reduce inflammation in the body. These include vegetable, nut, seed and fish oils.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat proven to protect the heart and reduce inflammation in the body. They’re also being studied for their role in prevention of diseases including diabetes and cancer. The Mediterranean diet, which studies consistently show lowers risk of chronic disease, is rich in omega 3 fats. Find them in oily fish, plus linseeds and pumpkin seeds, walnuts and soya beans.
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal foods but also coconut and palm oil. Although linked with a higher risk of heart disease, new studies and analysis of past research indicates that saturated fat may not be as unhealthy as once thought. Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat in the diet improves cholesterol levels in the body, which may lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, swapping saturated fat for refined carbohydrates (low-fat, high-sugar foods, see below) increases levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol and trigylcerides, which are a risk factor for heart disease.
Trans fats These are formed when liquid fat is heated. They’re often used in processed foods such as biscuits, cakes and margarine (look for the words ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ on the label) as it makes them more stable. Trans fats should be avoided where possible as they increase ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels, and create inflammation linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions.
A word on low-fat products
Many foods are naturally low in fat, but I can’t stand those that have their natural fat removed to make them more ‘healthy’. The fat is generally replaced with sugar or fillers which can be more harmful than the fat itself. Far better to enjoy a dollop of creamy full-fat Greek yoghurt, a grating of good Cheddar on a baked potato or a spread of butter on your toast than to put up with lacklustre low-fat options that don’t taste good and may not provide the health benefits they claim.