What you need to know about fat

We’re spending more on low-fat products than ever before, yet obesity levels continue to rise. Here’s what the experts say about the good and bad fats.

The lowdown on fat


After years of being warned off fats and encouraged to choose low-fat products if we want to lose weight, new research suggests fat is a food group that has been unfairly maligned.

A report from market research analyst IBISWorld predicted that Aussie households would spend $292 million on diet supplements, foods and drinks. The fact that almost two out of three Australian adults are now overweight or obese means that as we’re spending big on both junk and diet food and still getting bigger, we’re clearly confused. The low-fat route we’ve been following clearly isn’t working.

“Dr Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, described the worldwide obesity epidemic as a slow-motion disaster,” says Dr Clare Ballingall, chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Tasmania. “For decades we believed that a low-fat diet was essential for weight loss. Evidence now suggests this is not the case and that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet might be more beneficial for weight loss.”

The theory is that a lot of low-fat foods are made tastier with added sugars. Evidence may also suggest that a plant-based, low-carb, high-fat diet is superior to an animal-based one. “The jury is out, however, as to the long-term safety of maintaining a high-fat diet in terms of heart health,” says Dr Ballingall.

“Read the information on low-fat processed foods to check for higher sugar and salt contents and look to see what nutritional value they have – or, more often than not, have less of,” says Aloysa Hourigan, nutrition program manager at Nutrition Australia. “Full-fat products, such as whole-milk dairy products, will contain essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function efficiently.”

“The right kind of fats are good for our hearts, skin, brain health and cell structure,” says Gilbert. “We also need them to transport fat-soluble vitamins around our bodies.”

The first thing to understand is why our bodies need fats, says Julie Gilbert, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.


Bring back butter?

What makes a fat a ‘good’ fat and does this mean we can bring back butter? Before we all start slathering the yellow stuff on our toast, Aloysa Hourigan wants to make it clear that, like most things in life, it’s about balance.

“Butter is 60 per cent saturated fat so you don’t want to be using heaps of it, but a little bit, balanced with using a healthier fat, such as olive oil, at other times, is fine,” she says.

Interestingly, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found people on a low-carb diet shed kilos faster and had better cholesterol levels than those on a low-fat diet, even though the low-carb group was taking in more saturated fat. Part of the reason could be to do with the level of satisfaction fats bring.

“The good thing about fats is that while they’re energy dense, they will help with satiety as they slow down the rate of digestion,” says Hourigan. “That’s why I’d always choose an oil and vinegar dressing for my salad over a low-fat version.”

Did you know? ‘Bad’ cholesterol is known as LDL or low-density lipoprotein. Almonds, vitamin B3 and green tea can help in the reduction of LDL, and vitamin B3 also helps increase HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol.


Fat facts

Unsaturated fats | Eat a little every day

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (aka omega-3 and omega-6 fats) have a lower disease risk than saturated fats. They help maintain the cholesterol level in your blood by decreasing the ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and increasing the ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol. Foods that are high in good fats include:

Unsaturated fats


Saturated fats | Eat occasionally

Current advice is that, in comparison with unsaturated fats, a high intake of saturated fats can be bad for our health and these fats are best consumed in moderation. Foods containing large amounts of saturated fat include:

Saturated fats


Trans fats | Try to avoid

Studies show trans fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes. Primarily found in processed foods and takeaways, they give food a longer shelf life. Trans fats are not as common in Australia or New Zealand as in other countries. Food Standards Australia New Zealand says the industry generally maintains a low trans fat content. Foods high in trans fats include: Biscuits, cakes, cake mixes, crackers, crisps, hot chips, battered fish (including frozen), pastries, pies, margarine (made with hydrogenated oils), pancakes, waffles.

Did you know? A fat molecule is monounsaturated if it contains one double bond and polyunsaturated if it has more than one double bond. Monounsatured fats are found in avocados and olive oil and polyunsatured fats are in oily fish and nuts.


What about coconut oil?

“There’s not sufficient evidence to support the hype,” says Aloysa Hourigan. “only half the saturated fats in coconut oil can raise cholesterol. by all means, use it if you like the flavour, but I wouldn’t use lashings of it.”