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Facts about Fats

 Handful of almonds with fruit and veg in background

Not all fats are bad. A certain amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy balanced diet. We need fat for our nerves, brain and skin cells, to protect vital organs in the body and to help to control our body temperature. Fat also provides us with energy and adds taste and texture to our food. The problem is when we eat too much fat or too much of the less healthy types of fat.

What are the main types of fats?

Fats in foods are a mixture of three main types:

  • Saturated 
  • Polyunsaturated
  • Monounsaturated

It is best for everyone’s health, including children’s health, to eat mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated fat.

Trans fats are another type of fat. They behave like saturated fat in the body and should also be avoided as much as possible.

Saturated and trans fats

Saturated fats and trans fats are considered less healthy types of fats. Both saturated and trans fats raise the level of ‘bad’ LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol in your blood. However, trans fats also decrease the ‘good‘ HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol. All of these changes increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Foods high in saturated fat include animal fats (such as the fat on meat and skin from poultry), as well as full fat dairy products like butter, milk, cheese and cream. Many take-away foods and processed foods, such as pies, pastries, doughnuts and most commercial cakes and biscuits, can be high in saturated fats.

Trans fats are found naturally in small amounts in meat and some dairy products. However, the main sources of trans fats are found in foods made using processed (partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils, such as baked goods like commercial cakes and biscuits.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are better for your body and, in fact, are necessary for good health. They help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering the ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol in your blood.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found in foods such as:

  • sunflower, canola, olive, peanut, sesame and soybean oils
  • avocado
  • nuts and seeds
  • oily fish, including salmon, sardines, blue mackerel and tuna
  • some vegetable oils and margarine spreads

Tips to cut out saturated and trans fats

The following tips will help you reduce your consumption of saturated and trans fats:

  • As a replacement for butter, use spreads and margarines made from canola, sunflower or olive oil and dairy blends. You can also use other foods, such as avocado or hummus, as an alternative to spreads and margarines two or three times a week.
  • Use a variety of vegetable and seed oils when you are preparing foods. Healthier choices include canola, sunflower, soybean, olive and sesame oils, as well as oil from nuts like peanut and macadamia.
  • Use salad dressing and mayonnaise made from canola, sunflower, soybean, olive, sesame and peanut oils.
  • Select lean meats (trim any visible fat off meat and remove the skin from chicken).
  • Try to limit your intake of fatty processed meats, such as sausages, and delicatessen meats, such as salami. These also tend to be high in added salt.
  • Try to limit your intake of snack foods, such as potato crisps, corn chips and chocolate.
  • Try to limit your intake of take-away foods, such as pies, pastries, pizza, hamburgers and creamy pasta dishes.

When are reduced fat dairy products appropriate?

Dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese are nutritious foods for children. However, although these foods are rich in calcium and other minerals and vitamins, full fat varieties also contain saturated fat.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013) recommend that children aged two years and above should be encouraged to have reduced fat milk and other dairy products. These are lower in saturated fat and often contain more calcium than full fat varieties of the same product.

It is not recommended to give reduced fat milk and other dairy products to children aged under two years. Milk usually contributes a much higher proportion towards their diet and is a major source of energy during this period of rapid growth. As the child grows older and relies less on milk as a source of energy and nutrients, reduced fat diary products can be introduced as appropriate.

* A note about nuts

A small handful (30 grams) of plain, unsalted nuts can make a nutritious snack for children, as they are a rich source of the good polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals and energy.

However, some children are highly allergic to nuts. Young children with a predisposition to allergies should avoid peanuts and other types of nuts because, once developed, an allergy to nuts can persist into childhood.

For this reason, most schools and after-care school care programs now have nut allergy policies in place.

Make sure that no children have a nut allergy before serving. Children not allergic to nuts can have a small handful of unsalted plain or mixed nuts as a snack when they are at home. However, do not pack nuts or peanut butter sandwiches in lunchboxes, in case they are offered to a child who might be allergic.

Whole nuts are not suitable for children under five years as they are a choking hazard. However, they can be included in a paste form.