In recent years we have become increasingly conscious of how foodstuffs affect our body. We care about what we eat, and we pay great attention to what we buy, especially in terms of nutritional information.
If we want to make sure we eat healthy, balanced food, we can start by looking very carefully at the labels of the products we consume. This labelling can give us all the information we need about a product. While all the information is important, we would highlight ingredients like fats and added sugars. These features have a major influence on our diet, and knowing more about them helps, in turn, to improve our diet. We’ve talked before about what fats are and what types of fats exist: click here!
Some foods have a high natural fat content, such as fatty meat, coconut oil, nuts and so on. But there are other foods (sausage, cream, industrial parties, butter, pâté and the like) that have a high added fat content. It is just this latter group of foods that we must eat less of or only have occasionally. The same is true of sugar. Some foods, such as fruit, have a natural sugar content, while others have additional amounts of sugar added to them.
We generally tend to think that fat is fattening and we have to limit the amount we consume. However, this is only partly true, as there are some fats that also benefit our body.
To see which fats are beneficial to our body and which aren’t, let’s look at them in detail.
Types of fat
Not all fats are the same and not all should have the same presence in our diet. The total recommended daily intake of fats is between 20 and 35% of the total calories in our diet. For example, in a diet of 2000kcal a day we could consume between 40 and 80g of fat a day, taking into account the fat content of all the food we eat, not just that of olive oil.
Fats are divided into saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids, which in turn are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. What’s the difference between them?
Unsaturated fatty acids
- Monounsaturated fatty acids: their primary function is to protect the cardiovascular system, as they reduce total cholesterol levels in the blood by cutting so-called bad cholesterol (LDL-c) and building up good cholesterol (HDL-c). There is convincing evidence that replacing saturated fatty acids with monounsaturated fatty acids reduces the level of LDL cholesterol and the proportion of total cholesterol to HDL-c. It is therefore advisable to consume monounsaturated fat as the main source of fat in our diet. The recommended daily intake of this is 15-20% of the total calories in the day. This type of fat is to be found in olive oil, olives and avocados.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids: these lower total cholesterol and levels of triglycerides in the blood and reduce the risk of thrombus or blood clots. This group includes omega-6 (linoleic) fatty acid and omega-3, plentiful in the fat of oily fish. The omega-3 group also includes linolenic fatty acid, as our body uses this to produce EPA and DHA fatty acids. Linoleic (omega-6) and linolenic (omega-3) are essential fatty acids. This means that our body cannot produce them by itself and they must come from the foodstuffs we consume in our diet. The oils in seeds, nuts or vegetable margarines are foodstuffs rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. The FAO recommends an intake of less than 7% of the calories in our diet.
Saturated fatty acids
In general, an intake of saturated fatty acids is associated with a worse lipid profile (total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol), and therefore with an increased risk of cardiovascular illness. Experts therefore recommend keeping consumption of saturated fat down to a maximum of 10% of total calorie intake, by avoiding foods that are a source of fats of this type, such as fatty meats, offal and derivatives (sausage, pâté, fat, lard, etc.), full-fat dairy products and lactic fats (cream and butter), eggs and products that contain these foodstuffs. They are also present in coconut and palm oil, and in products with hydrogenated fats such as margarines, industrial confectionery, pastries and snacks.
However, a distinction must be made between the saturated facts that are naturally present in foods like dairy products, eggs or coconut oil and the saturated fats in industrial confectionery, snacks or sausages that have undergone industrial hydrogenation processes and thermal processes. The former do not have such a negative influence on the lipid profile as more industrially processed foods or products.
As for cholesterol, its intake should be kept to less than 300 milligrams a day. There is a cholesterol that our body produces naturally and another that we get from food, primarily those of animal origin (offal, sausages, cream and butter, cakes and pastries made with animal fats, etc.). It is recommended that foods with a high cholesterol content be consumed in moderation and only occasionally, as they can have a negative impact on the lipid profile and lead to future cardiovascular illnesses in cases of high consumption.
Depending on the amount of fat in a product, the following health claims might be found on the label:
- Fat-free. A food can be claimed to be fat-free if the product does not contain more than 0.5 g of fat per 100 ml of product.
- Low-fat. This can be claimed if the product contains less than 1.5 g of fat per 100 ml of product.
- Low saturated fat content. Declaration permitted when the sum of saturated fatty acids and trans acids in the product is no more than 0.75 g per 100 ml of product.
Any product or foodstuff carrying the above health claims is suitable if we are following a low-fat diet. However, if our total fat intake is between 20-35% of the total calories in our diet and our intake of saturated fatty acids is less than 10%, as recommended by organisations like the FAO, we will in any case be following the guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet.
Which foods are rich in healthy fats?
- Olive oil: 3-4 spoonfuls a day
- Coconut oil
- Nuts: an intake of 20-30 g a day is recommended.
- Lean/white meats: chicken, rabbit and turkey. These are recommended 2-3 times a week.
- Oily fish: this is recommended 2-3 times a week
What foods should we consume in moderation and occasionally?
- Fatty meats and sausages
- Butter and margarines
- Pre-packed sauces in jars
- Industrial pastries and confectionery
- Palm oil and cocoa butter
- Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition. Expert consultation. FOOD AND NUTRITION PAPER 91. FAO ISBN 978-92-5-3067336 by Souza RJ, et al. (2015). Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. 2015 Aug 11; 351:h3978.
- Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006 of the European Parliament and Council of 20th December 2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods.