The big fat truth

Not all fats are harmful to health (Picture from

Contrary to common belief, not all fats are harmful to health.

FATS are often perceived as bad. The common misconception is that fats lead to weight gain and that all fats are bad and should be omitted from our diet.

However, fats — or dietary fats — are not all bad. There are fats that we cannot live without. There are also fats that we need in small amounts in our daily diet and those that must be avoided at all cost.

Dietary fats refer to the fats and oils found naturally in animal and plant foods as well as those used in cooking and added to processed foods. In simple words, dietary fats can also be defined as the fat that we eat.

They consist of unsaturated, saturated and trans-fats — which are often referred to as the good, the bad and the ugly. Each has a different impact on our health, depending on how much we consume them.

The good refers to unsaturated fats that come in two forms — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Good fats provide health benefits and can lower your risk of diseases.

The bad are the saturated fats found in animal-based foods and dairy products. They are also known as the in-between fats, due to the fact that we can include a small amount in our daily diet.

The ugly or the worst type of dietary fat is trans fat. According to Harvard Health, trans fat is a byproduct of the hydrogenation process that is used to turn healthy oils into solids and to prevent them from becoming rancid. On food labels, it is listed as partially hydrogenated oil.

Consuming too much of saturated and trans fat can lead to obesity, increased total cholesterol and blood pressure. They can also increase risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur dietitian Ng Poh Mun says that even though all fats provide nine calories per gramme, they are not equal as they differ in chemical structure and affect blood lipid levels differently.

The good fat is essential to our health because it is a major source of energy, helps in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and builds the sheaths surrounding nerves.

“It function structurally to support organs in position, protect the body from mechanical pressure and insulate the body to preserve body heat and temperature.

“Unsaturated fats help in reducing bad cholesterol levels in our body which can lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. But unsaturated fats may only be beneficial when they replace saturated fats in the diet. Simply adding these fats to the diet may not provide health benefits.”

Healthy balanced diet that include fat as recommended. (Picture from

Based on the Recommended Nutrient Intakes for Malaysia 2017 (RNI), fat contribution towards total energy intake (TEI) for adults should be between 25 and 30 per cent. For example, an individual will need about 55 to 66g of fat per day if he is on a 2,000 kcal diet.


As for saturated fats, Ng says it is found naturally in animal-based foods — except fish — and certain tropical oils.

“Most food items contain a mix of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. They are then labelled as saturated or unsaturated fat depending on how much each type of fatty acids they contain. Hence it is not possible to avoid the consumption of saturated fat. The RNI has recommended to limit the intake of saturated fat to less than 10 per cent of total daily calorie intake.”

Saturated fat can be found in animal-based products. (Picture from

With the health risks associated with trans fat, it is advisable to avoid it. Some manufacturers may label the foods as trans fat free but it does not mean there is none, says Ng.

Fried food such as the doughnut burger is loaded with trans fat (Picture from

She says the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) allows any food with 0.5g of trans fat or less per serving to claim zero gramme trans fat on the label.

“If one consumes several servings of trans fat-free food in a day, one can end up consuming a measurable amount of trans fat.

“These small amounts of trans fat can add up and lead to the increase of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. So just because it is labelled as trans-fat free food does not mean that it is healthy and safe to be consumed.


Ng says saturated fat and trans fat increase the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the bad cholesterol in our blood.

High levels of LDL cholesterol in our blood increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

To reduce the consumption of bad fats, use healthy cooking techniques such as roast, grill, bake, braise, steam or poach because many of the fats used for frying are high in saturated fats.

“Replace full fat milk and dairy products with low fat milk and dairy products. Choose the lean part of meat and poultry such as chicken breast, chicken fillets, top or bottom round roasts and steaks, and loin cuts or meat with less marbling. Trim off any visible fat from meat and remove the skin off poultry,” says Ng.

Consumers should also read and understand the term fat-free, low-fat and reduced-fat to avoid the risks.

Based on USFDA food labelling guide, fat-free means that the product has less than 0.5g of fat per serving and contains no ingredient that is fat or understood to contain fat. Low-fat products have less than 3g of fat per serving. Products that are labelled reduced-fat contain at least 25 per cent less fat per serving than an appropriate reference food. For example, for reduced fat butter cake, the appropriate reference food would be regular butter cake.

Ng says even though foods are using these labels, neither one of them is better than the other as it still depends on the amount and ways that people consume the foods.

“Eating too much of any product can cause weight gain. That is why it is important to ensure we consume a sensible amount of fat within the context of our daily calorie needs for natural energy,” she says.

Experts have warned that fats and oils have more than twice the calories as compared to protein and carbohydrate.

Excessive fat intake, including unsaturated, can result in weight gain.


ALL cooking oils are composed of three different types of fatty acids: Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. Each oil is categorised based on which fatty acid is most prominent.

Here are some cooking oils with their fatty acid content:

1. Coconut oil

Nutrition experts note that coconut oil is high in saturated fat (92 per cent), and recommend using it only sparingly. In fact, coconut oil has more saturated fat than the same amount of butter or lard.

There is also limited science to back up marketers’ claims that coconut oil is much better for the heart than butter. A 2016 review published in the journal Nutrition Reviews found that people who consumed coconut oil had higher total and LDL cholesterol levels than those who consumed unsaturated fats, although the levels were a bit lower than in the people who used butter.

2. Extra-virgin olive oil and pure olive oil

Because of its prominent role in the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a popular cooking oil.

Olive oils typically have the highest percentage of monounsaturated fats among cooking oils (although some high-oleic versions of other oils may have artificially boosted levels of monounsaturated fats).

Olive oil is also rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, beneficial plant compounds that some studies suggest may improve heart health.

However, extra-virgin olive oil is not suitable for cooking at high temperatures because it cannot withstand very high heat before it starts to burn and smoke. Refined, or pure olive oil may be more suited for high-temperature cooking.

Because extra-virgin olive oil offers more flavour than other types of olive oil, it’s a good option for sauteing vegetables, dipping bread or preparing salad dressings and marinades.

3. Peanut oil

Among cooking oils, peanut oil has the highest monounsaturated fat content at 49 per cent. Peanut oil has a similar percentage of polyunsaturated fat (33 per cent) to canola oil.

Its percentage of saturated fat (18 per cent) is higher than that of other vegetable oils but not to the point that it’s a concern for heart health, and it still has less saturated fat than coconut or palm oils.

Peanut oil can withstand high heat and is a good choice for cooking Asian-inspired meals and stir-fries, according to food experts.

4. Sunflower oil

Sunflower oil has one of the highest concentrations of polyunsaturated fat (69 per cent) among cooking oils. It supplies monounsaturated fat (20 per cent) and is low in saturated fat (11 per cent), making it an overall heart-healthy option. Sunflower oil is a good all-purpose oil because it can withstand high cooking temperatures.

There are also the “high-oleic” versions of sunflower oils. These oils have been modified to be richer in oleic acid, which boosts their levels of monounsaturated fat.

Food manufacturers are turning to high-oleic oils as replacement for trans fats, which are hydrogenated oils that can extend processed foods’ shelf life.

5. Soyabean oil

Soyabean oil is primarily a polyunsaturated oil — with 61 per cent polyunsaturated fat, 24 per cent monounsaturated fat and 15 per cent saturated fat.

As a bonus, soyabean oil contains some omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy fats often found in salmon and sardines, but are less common in plant-based sources of food.

Vegetable oil made from soyabean is a neutral-tasting oil that does not have much flavour.

Nevertheless, it’s a versatile, all-purpose cooking oil for sauteing and frying, or making salad dressings.



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