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  • Writer's pictureTristan

The broad and complex topic of dietary fats


To start with, it is important to understand that in our diet, fats are a mixture of multiple fatty acids of which some are essential as they are needed for different cellular processes and are not produced by our body. These essential fatty acids are also needed to absorb certain minerals and vitamins. They should therefore be included in our diet. There are three main fatty acid categories, saturated, unsaturated, and trans fatty acids. These categories are also divided into sub-categories depending on the length of the molecular chain, as well as the number of double bonds it contains. They are present in animal-based products such as meat or dairy products, as well as plant-based products such as nuts or seeds.

Much diverse and misleading information circulates on the internet or even through health professionals about “good and bad fats”. This is due to the important amount of scientific research undertaken showing many different results depending on the protocols used as well as the markers measured. As a result, it confuses our understanding and makes everyday food choices more difficult.

For many years health departments from many different countries have been recommending people to reduce their dietary fat intake. This has led many brands to make food products containing 0% fat. However, many brands, to make their products taste nice and make people buy them, added carbohydrates (mostly sugar). As a result, their product was not healthier. Moreover, as mentioned previously, some fatty acids are essential and should therefore be included in our diet. They should no longer be demonised.

Another message that has been overly shared over the past years is to decrease our saturated fatty acid intake as it was dangerous for our health. Admittedly, some saturated fatty acids can be dangerous in some cases, however, those which have a short or a medium molecular chain were not found to be associated with the development of health conditions. As they are present in many dairy products and some oils such as coconut oil, it is important to state that for most people, these food items can be included in a well-balanced diet without increasing the risk of developing a health condition.

Many studies concluded that although saturated fats can be included in a healthy diet, replacing a part of the dietary saturated fatty acids with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids may lower the risks of developing certain diseases such as some cancers, as well as some inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases. Monounsaturated fatty acids can be found in olive, canola, and peanut oil, in avocado, as well as in some nuts (almonds, pecans, hazelnuts) and seeds (sesame or pumpkin seeds). On the other hand, polyunsaturated fatty acids can be found in sunflower, corn, soja, or linseed oil, as well as in some fishes (salmon, anchovy, herring, or mackerel for example). As a result, to follow the recommendations, it is possible to swap using butter with using linseed oil when cooking for example.

In the polyunsaturated fatty acids group, there are two important categories: omega-3 and omega-6. They are essential and allow many of our body mechanisms to function properly. According to the observations made by multiple studies, people should keep a ratio between one and four the amount of omega-6 consumed compared to omega-3. This could reduce the risks of developing some inflammatory, auto-immune diseases, as well as some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. For example, if you mainly use sunflower oil for cooking, go for rapeseed oil instead. Linseed, camelina, and hempseed oil all contain an important portion of omega-3. Other foods such as nuts, some seeds (pumpkin, chia, or linseed), and some fatty fishes (salmon, sardine, herring, anchovy, mackerel) can participate in the daily intake.

Another important should also be mentioned about the way of using fats when cooking. You never exceed the “smoke point”. When dietary fat is smoking, it means that it has been degraded and is not stable anymore, which leads to the formation of harmful compounds. Therefore, you should avoid deep frying food. Lastly, most scientists agree on the fact that trans fatty acids should be banned from people’s diets as they are harmful.

To conclude, it is hard to make a clear and concise statement about dietary fats as the topic is complex and the scientific literature and knowledge are constantly evolving. However, some notions can be helpful to choose dietary fats as part of a well-balanced diet. You should increase the portion of unsaturated fatty acids in your diet and keep a good ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 in this category. For the saturated fatty acids category, you should go for those with a short or medium molecular chain which can be spotted as being liquid at room temperature. Finally, the best advice may be to diversify the food you eat. It should also be noted that this information is not meant to treat any diseases. Hence, if you have any conditions, follow your doctor’s orders.


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