Jane Badham

There is no doubt that we live in a society that has been led to unequivocally believe that fat, any fat is bad for you and should be avoided at all costs - to the point where it has become a mantra for many! 

Not true say the scientists. It seems that with the current fat phobia sight has been lost of the fact that some fat is vitally important for the day-to-day functioning of the body. The fact that fat is indeed energy dense, providing almost double the amount of energy per gram of other nutrients such as carbohydrates and proteins, in a weight focussed society has added to their negative image. There is no doubt that consuming too much fat is unhealthy, but then too much of most things is not recommended by the health experts. "The truth about fats is not a simple matter of fat being good or bad" says well-known dietitian Jane Badham, "but rather that not all fats are equal."

So although fat is not entirely innocent it might well just be that the proponents of the fat free crusade have been indiscriminate in the way that they have dealt with fat. In nature there are different types of fat. Science classifies fats according to their chemical structure as either saturated fats or unsaturated fats (made up of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). It is the degree of saturation of a fat that affects its impact on health. Enter the good fats and the bad fats. 

Years of scientific research have resulted in consensus that an elevated blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, a message that most people know and understand. However, what many people don't realise is that it is actually the saturated fats that dramatically raise the unhealthy LDL blood cholesterol. In contrast to this, latest research shows that the monounsaturated fats have a positive effect and actually lower the bad LDL cholesterol. Got it? Not all fats are equal and the saturated fats could be considered the "baddies" and monounsaturated fats the "goodies". 

Saturated fats come mainly from the animal foods such as butter, ghee, cream and the piece of fat on the edge of the steak, while the monounsaturated fats are found in most nuts, olives and avocados. So does this mean that we can all forget about watching the amount of fat that we eat as long as it is of the unsaturated variety? No. Scientists in the know and reputable organisations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) and even our own Heart Foundation promote the principle of limiting the total amount of fat in the diet, but why?

According to Shân Biesman-Simons dietitian at the Heart Foundation the reason is "not because all fat is bad, but because we need to facilitate a reduction in the amount of saturated fat consumed and to help control calories to manage weight, both which in excess have dire health consequences."

Many people are surprised to learn that some fat is in fact essential to good health. Some dietary fat is needed for good health as fat is the principle source of energy; insulates the bodies organs; controls temperature; is the carrier of fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) and supplies essential fatty acids that prevent drying and flaking of the skin and have several metabolic roles. Fat also improves the texture of foods and absorbs and retains the flavours. They remain in the stomach longer and prolong the "good-and-full feeling".

Only when people consume either too much or too little fat does it result in health problems. Sadly many South Africans consume too much fat and this can lead to a number of problems including overweight and heart disease. The Heart Foundation therefore recommends that South Africans decrease not only their total fat intake but also look at the type of fat that they consume. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels and so one should aim to reduce this type of fat intake. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats tent to lower blood cholesterol levels and should make up most of your fat intake.

The fats that we consume come from many different sources, both visible and hidden. Visible fats are for example butter, salad dressing and the fat one trims from your steak. Hidden fats are an integral part of food like the fat in the meat itself, fat in nuts or eggs, fat in cheese.

The truth is not as simple as fat being good or bad but rather that not all fats are equal…




Saturated fat

Red meat, dairy products, coconut oil and palm oil

Provides energy and has a potent cholesterol raising effect

Polyunsaturated fat

   Omega-6 fatty acids

    Omega-3 fatty acids

Vegetable oils (sunflower, soybean and corn), seeds and nuts, grains

Fish especially oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna

Polyunsaturated fat is sometimes called ‘essential fat’ because the body cannot produce them. Polyunsaturated fat when eaten as part of a healthy diet can actually help to reduce the amount of total cholesterol in the blood.

An essential fatty acid that helps keep the cell membranes healthy and controls cholesterol.

Omega-3 fats have been shown to lower blood cholesterol, blood pressure and clot formation and thus reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke

Monounsaturated fat

Olive, canola and peanut oil, avocado

Monounsaturated fats have been shown to have a positive effect on HDL (‘good’) cholesterol

Trans fats

Some margarines, shortenings, baked goods, meat and dairy products

Trans fats are as unhealthy as saturated fats – raising LDL (‘bad’) and lowering HDL (‘good’) cholesterol


Dietary fat not fully broken down by the liver

A high triglyceride level in the blood puts you at a higher risk for heart disease


More information:



March 2003