Essential fats are good fats. They are polyunsaturated fats which are required by the body – we cannot make them hence their name. There are two key types - omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. These fats are critical for the structure of our cell membranes and as such are very beneficial for brain health, skin health, hormone health, and heart function. They can help reduce inflammation in the body and so can help prevent diseases such as arthritis, asthma, heart disease and brain and mood disorders. Essential fats also help the detoxification process by stimulating the gall bladder and the flow of bile. Bile helps prevent constipation, and so prevents the buildup of toxins. They can also help make the stool softer and easier to pass.
Where can you find essential fats?
Omega 6 fats
Omega 6 fats are found in nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts, pecan nuts, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and flaxseeds. They are also found in hemp, soya beans, and evening primrose and blackcurrant seed oils.
Omega 3 fats
Omega 3 fats are found predominantly in oily fish, such as trout, mackerel, fresh tuna, sardines, salmon, anchovies and herring. You can also find omega 3 fats in flaxseeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, soya beans, and to a lesser extent green vegetables such as kale.
The bad fats: Hydrogenated fats
Hydrogenation is a process of treating oils to solidify them and to increase their shelf life. This involves heat treatment and the use of many chemicals including some metals, the end result is a highly artificial product that has been linked to heart disease, infertility, obesity and diabetes. This type of fat is not easily processed by the body and can hinder the absorption and utilisation of the essential fats. Hydrogenated fats are often found in margarines, and many processed foods such as biscuits, cake and chocolate.
Saturated fats Saturated fats are found in dairy foods and red meat. Although we do need some saturated fats in our diet, excess consumption is linked to many health problems particularly cardiovascular disease and strokes. These fats also increase inflammation in the body and interfere with the metabolism of essential fats. Inflammation makes the body more susceptible to problems such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, obesity and arthritis.
Using oils in cooking:
Polyunsaturated fats are unstable, which means they are easily damaged by heat to create free radicals – molecules which can damage our cells and contribute to the ageing process. Polyunsaturated oils should therefore never be used for cooking - add them at the end just before serving and ensure that they are stored in a dark bottle in the fridge. When choosing oil, make sure it is labelled as ‘cold pressed’, otherwise heat will have been used during the manufacturing process. Low fat spreads and margarines will also contain oils which have been heated so are best avoided.
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which means it is more stable when heated. So you can use extra virgin cold pressed olive oil for cooking but try to keep the temperature as low as possible. You can also use unsalted butter or coconut oil for cooking – these are saturated fats and are more stable than mono and polyunsaturated fats.