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The fats of life

The human body needs fats to thrive, but choosing the right type is crucial to good health

The benefits of fats

“Fat has got a bad name over the past couple of decades,” says nutritional therapist Olive Curran who works with PPC Galway. “The truth is our body needs fat to function and thrive; it’s the type of fat that we ingest that’s important. For years, healthy but nutritious foods such as avocado and nuts were lumped together with less healthy high-fat foods such as bacon, red meat and fried foods. Fat is our friend, but like all friendships, we want to keep the good and have less of the bad.”

“A common misconception is that fat should be completely eliminated,” says Erin Dolan, a certified health coach who works with the Aloe Tree in Ennistymon, Co Clare. “In reality, we could not live without fat. High-quality fats can steady our metabolism, keep hormone levels even, nourish our skin, hair and nails, and provide lubrication to keep the body functioning fluidly.”

“Recent research indicates that foods high in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs and PUFAs) contribute to a healthier diet,” says Olive Curran. “These ‘good’ unsaturated fats decrease total cholesterol and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.”

Fats to avoid

“Heavily processed, hydrogenated ‘trans’ fats used in prepared, packaged foods can be extremely damaging to the body,” says Erin Dolan. “They can compromise the cardiovascular system, immune system, lead to weight gain, skin breakouts, high blood pressure and liver strain.”

“Trans fats are the big baddies,” says Martha Brennan of Harvest Fare in Blessington, Co Wicklow and current Chairperson of the Irish Association of Health Stores. “They go by ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially-hydrogenated’ in the ingredient list on processed foods. Their inclusion is one of the main reasons processed food is so dangerous for our health, creating inflammation and contributing to heart disease and diabetes.”

What about fish oils?

“The really important fatty acids are the ‘essential fatty acids’ - the body cannot make them and they must be obtained through the diet,” says Olive Curran. “Both omega-3 and omega-6 are considered essential, however the western diet contains high levels of omega-6 and very little omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are the building blocks of every living cell in the human body. They play an important role in thinning the blood and reducing inflammation. The best source of omega-3 is oily fish (sardines, salmon, anchovies, fresh tuna and mackerel).”

“Fats from oily fish are particularly good for us because they contain high levels of omega-3 which is essential to our health,” says Martha Brennan. “This type of PUFA is known to protect against various heart risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure. They also offer benefits in arthritis, mood, cognitive function, hormonal and skin conditions and more. If you can't manage to eat oily fish at least twice a week then there are many good quality supplements in liquid or capsule form.”

“Omega-3 fatty acids are especially beneficial for your heart health and regulating your good and bad cholesterol levels,” says Erin Dolan. “Sometimes it’s hard to get enough omega-3s into your diet - this is where a supplement could be beneficial.”

What if I don’t eat fish?

Essential fatty acids play a key role in many bodily functions including heart, brain and vision to help you feel amazing inside and out. No matter what your diet or lifestyle preferences, it’s vital you include them. Don’t despair if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or simply don’t eat fish, you just need to look for other plant-based sources. The good news is that there are vegan supplements which provide a good source of essential fats such as organic flax, sunflower, sesame, coconut and evening primrose, one such being Udo’s Oil. It’s wise to supplement your diet to ensure you’re getting enough and a ratio of 2:1 omegas 3 & 6 is advisable. The other advantage to taking a vegan oil is that you don’t get a fishy after-taste.

Choosing the best fats

Best oils for high heat cooking – almond, avocado, ghee (clarified butter), coconut, rapeseed.

Best oils for moderate heat – organic grassfed butter, macadamia, refined olive oil, peanut, sesame, walnut, olive, sesame.

Best oils to eat raw – grapeseed, hemp, extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed, sunflower.

Keep in the fridge – oils such as avocado, hazelnut, flax and hemp should be kept in the fridge.

Read the label – look for terms like’ cold-pressed’, ‘raw’ or ‘virgin’ on the labels which describe oils that have not been heavily processed and retain their natural flavour and colour.

Types of fats explained

Monounsaturated fats are healthy fats that can add flavour, help satiate your appetite, and stabilise blood sugar levels. They are heart healthy when used in moderation.

Polyunsaturated fats are healthy unsaturated fats, that are in a liquid state at room temperature. They can help lower your total body cholesterol level and support heart function.

Saturated fat is transported to the liver and converted to cholesterol, therefore contributing to high cholesterol.

Partially hydrogenated oils increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, overall contributing to high cholesterol.

Coconut oil is high in healthy saturated fats that can boost fat burning and provide your body and brain with quick energy. They also raise the good HDL cholesterol in your blood and the fatty acids reduce hunger and make you feel fuller for longer. Coconut oil is stable at room temperature and can be used in cooking as is or melted.

How to include more good fats in your diet

  • Use them as a spread such as natural almond butter, tahini or avocado instead of jam.
  • Sprinkle flaxseed on your porridge or yoghurt in the morning.
  • Make homemade granola with a combination of nuts and seeds.
  • Fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, Albacore tuna and trout – these are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and contain EPA and DHA essential fatty acids.
  • Snack on olives or add to a salad.
  • Make a nut and seed mix to snack on - walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and almonds are good.

Erin Dolan


Monounsaturated fats are found in:

  • Olive oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Rapeseed (canola) oil
  • Spreads that contain these oils
  • Avocado
  • Seeds
  • Cashew nuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts


Omega-3 fats are found in:

  • Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines and fresh tuna
  • Omega-3 fats in tuna are normally lost during the tinning process. If you are using tinned tuna, make sure the label says that the omega-3 fats have been replaced

Omega-6 fats are found in:

  • Vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, soya bean and sesame oils
  • Soya beans
  • Walnuts, hazelnuts and brazil nuts


Saturated fats are found in:

  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Hard margarine
  • Cheese
  • Cream
  • Whole milk
  • Fatty meats
  • Cakes
  • Biscuits
  • Chocolate
  • Palm oil
  • Many ready-meals and processed foods. Check food labels to find out how much saturated fat they contain.


  • Cakes, biscuits, pastries
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Hard margarines
  • Any foods or ready-meals containing hydrogenated oil or hydrogenated fat are likely to have trans fats

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