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Despite what you might think, fat is not all bad, or rather, not all fat is bad – some fats are even crucial to good health. However, this doesn’t give you the go-ahead to load up on fries; research continues to show a diet high in certain fats is an unquestionable  cause of heart disease. So it’s important you’re including the right fats in your diet.

What is fat?

Fat is an oily, greasy material found in animals (including humans) and plants. Fat is a fact of all life. Almost nothing lives without it.

There are different types of fat including saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Foods almost always contain more than one of these fats, however some foods contain more “bad” fat than others. If you really want to be fat-savvy, you need to know what’s what.

  • Saturated fat is “bad” fat. Too much of it increases your cholesterol levels, raises your risk of blood clots, atherosclerosis (artery blockage), and coronary heart disease. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products such as full cream milk, cheese, butter, cream, fatty meats and sausages, and also in processed foods. Coconut, palm and other tropical oils are the only plant foods which contain significant amounts of saturated fat. Saturated fats are usually solid or waxy at room temperature.
  • Trans fat is “the other bad fat”. This also raises blood cholesterol levels and increases your risk of heart disease. It’s made by adding hydrogen to vegetable fats – a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats are found mostly in baked goods and fried foods, and in shortenings and margarines which are “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.”
  • Polyunsaturated fats are “good” fats and come in two forms: omega-6 and omega-3. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats tend to lower your blood cholesterol. Rich sources include safflower, sunflower, and corn oils.
    Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats can also lower blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated fats. Omega-3 fats have many other health benefits, such as lowering your blood triglycerides and blood pressure levels, as well as reducing your risk of heart disease. They may also protect against some cancers. Sources of omega-3 fats include canola, flaxseed, walnut and soybean oils, and oily fish like mackerel, herring, tuna and salmon. (Note: Sources of omega-6 – safflower, sunflower, and corn oils – are overabundant in the typical diet. Aim for a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in your diet).
  • Monounsaturated fats are also “good” fats, as they tend to lower “bad” LDL-cholesterol and maintain the protective “good” HDL-cholesterol in your bloodstream – but only if they replace saturated fats in your diet. Foods rich in monounsaturated fat include olive and canola oils, peanuts, and avocados.
  • Cholesterol is not a fat per se; it’s more like a cousin of fat. Both fats and cholesterol belong to the lipid family. Cholesterol fulfils many important functions in your body. For example, it’s used in the making of hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids which help in the digestion of fat, as well as maintaining cell walls. The problem is your liver already makes around 1000mg of cholesterol per day, which is almost as much, if not all, of the cholesterol your body needs to maintain these vital functions. So, when you consume too much dietary cholesterol as well (mainly from foods high in saturated fat), your body can’t get rid of or use the excess. The extra fats build up in various cells and tissues of your body, leading to heart complications and other health problems. Cholesterol is found in high-fat dairy products, egg yolks, high-fat meats, and poultry skins.

What is fat for?

Skinny people don’t always invoke jealousy. In societies where food is scarce, body fat is a sign of wealth, and overweight people are envied because their bodies show they have enough to eat. In Australia today, of course, it’s those who eat too much fat whose lives are in danger. But this doesn’t change the fact some fat is necessary to stay alive.

Fat plays many important roles in the body. For example, fat provides a highly concentrated form of energy. One gram of fat provides nine calories of energy, which is more than twice the energy (calories) provided by carbohydrates and protein.

Fat also enables your body to transport, store and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. An absence of fat may lead to a deficiency in these vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins help regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting, and your nervous system.

Fat also provides insulation and a protective cover for your vital organs. In an average adult, as much as 4 kg of fat is found around the liver, heart, kidneys and other organs.

Essential fatty acids from omega-3 fats can’t be made by your body, and therefore must be obtained through your diet. Dull, lifeless hair and dry skin can be a sign you’re not getting enough of these fats.

And of course, fat adds extra flavour, aroma, and texture to food, which is perhaps why we often eat too much of it!

How much is too much?

The right amount of fat keeps you alive; a high-fat diet, however, can increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

Most Australians consume over 40% of their daily calories from fat, which is far from the 20-30% you should be aiming for. This overload of fat leads to obesity and heart disease, as well as high blood cholesterol and countless other health problems. The recommended 20-30% of daily calorie intake from fat equates to about 30-60 grams of fat for children and women, and 40-80 grams for teenagers and men, depending on activity levels. (Infants and children under three shouldn’t have fat intake restricted).

Furthermore, less than 10% of your total calories should come from saturated fats and/or trans fats. Cholesterol intake should be less than 300 mg a day. If you have high blood cholesterol levels, you should aim for less than 200 mg per day.

Desirable Daily Fat Intake  (based on 20-30% fat from total calories)    
Daily total calories Calories from fat

(20-30% cals)

Daily total fat grams (20-30% cals) Daily saturated fat grams (10% of cals)
1200 cals 240-360 cals 27-40g 13g
1500 cals 300-450 cals 33-50g 17g
1800 cals 360-540 cals 40-60g 20g
2000 cals 400-600 cals 44-67g 22g
2200 cals 440-660 cals 49-73g 25g
2500 cals 500-750 cals 56-83g 28g
2800 cals 560-840 cals 62-93g 31g
3000 cals 600-900 cals 67-100g 33g
3500 cals 700-1050 cals 78-117g 39g
4000 cals 800-1200 cals 89-133g 45g

Note: At lower calorie levels, the percent of fat calories should decrease to allow for protein calories (which have nutritional priority).

Figuring fat into your diet

It’s all very well to understand the dos and don’ts of fat consumption, but when it comes to actually implementing good “fat” practices in your diet, the numbers, percentages and grams can get confusing. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – just follow these steps:

  • The first rule is “moderate, don’t eliminate.” Some fat is essential to your diet, so don’t cut it out completely.
  • Work out exactly how much fat you should be eating using the table above. For example, if your daily calorie intake is 1800 calories, 360-540 of those calories (20-30%) should be obtained from fat. This equates to 40-60 grams of fat.
  • Before you eat something, read the nutritional label, or consult your Pocket Calorie, Fat and Carbohydrate Counter to see how many grams of fat the food contains. Deduct these grams from your recommended daily intake. For example, if you’re consuming 1800 calories per day and you eat a tub of strawberry yoghurt (6g fat), then you can eat another 34-54 grams of fat throughout the rest of the day.
  • One food can contain a variety of fats, so watching your fat intake means being aware of both the amount and the types of fat in your food. Get to know which foods contain which fats, and make an effort to include more sources of omega-3 and less sources of saturated fat in your diet.
  • Don’t forget to account for portion size when counting calories and fat grams!

Remember 20-30% of calories from fat doesn’t equate to 20-30% of fat in each individual food you eat, but rather 20-30% of your overall diet. Your normal diet is made up of foods that are either well above or below 30% fat.

Also remember food doesn’t have to look or taste greasy to contain a lot of fat. It can be difficult to detect fat in some foods because the taste of fat is often hidden by other flavours and textures. For example, ice cream, mayonnaise, cheese, muesli bars, chocolate, and cake all have a high fat content, but the taste and feel of that fat is not as detectable as in a greasy burger or chips. Thus, a large amount of fat from these foods can be unwittingly consumed – and with it, excessive calories.

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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