• Melissa Genee, RD

Focus on Fats

Last week our blog post focussed on proteins, specifically how to incorporate more plant-based protein into your diet. This week we are focussing on another important macronutrient: fat! Fat tends to get a bad reputation and is often associated with weight gain and poor health, however, not all fats are created equal. Read on to learn why fat is important, the different types of fats and how to include healthier fats in your diet.

Why are Fats Important?

Fats are nutrients found in food that are important for growth and development. We are typically drawn to higher fat foods as they tend to have the flavour and texture we find appetizing. Fats are calorie dense and because of that, our bodies turn much of the fat we eat into energy for our bodies to move, grow and function. If we eat too much fat, our bodies will store that energy for later. Fat is also important as some nutrients require fat to be present for our bodies to absorb them - these are called fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Without fat in our diet, it is harder for these important nutrients to be absorbed.

Fats are especially important for infants and young children as they support proper growth, brain and nervous system development. For these reasons, we should not be restricting the amount of fat in our children’s diets, instead we should be looking to include small amounts of healthy fats that support health and development.

Different Types of Fats

There are three different types of fat:

1. Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats are healthy fats found in plants and fish. In general, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and can help keep our heart healthy by lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol. Unsaturated fats can be split into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

  • Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, canola and sunflower oils, in addition to nuts, seeds, avocados and soft margarines.

  • Polyunsaturated fats are also found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, however these healthy fats are also found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Fatty fish contain a special kind of polyunsaturated fat known as omega-3. Omega-3 fats have become popular in recent years for their key in brain and heart development. Our bodies need to get these important fats from food sources as we have a hard time synthesizing them all on our own.

2. Saturated fats

Saturated fats are less healthy fats found in animals, dairy products (butter, lard, ghee, milk, yogurt and cheese) as well as some plant oils (palm oil and coconut oil - see below). Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and can increase the bad cholesterol found in your body.

Note: Coconut oil has become very popular in recent years due to it’s claimed health benefits, such as weight loss, controlling diabetes and preventing alzheimer's disease. Coconut oil contains a different kind of fat called medium chain triglycerides or MCT, which is thought to help raise good cholesterol. However, there are limited long term human studies confirming any health benefits of coconut oil. And although coconut oil may contain some MCT, coconut oil is primarily saturated fat and has been shown to increase bad cholesterol. It is best to replace coconut oil with unsaturated fats (such as olive or canola oil) or use it sparingly in cooking.

3. Trans fats

Trans fats are unhealthy fats, primarily produced industrially, however can sometimes be found in animal products. Although less is known about trans fats from animal products, these are claimed to be less harmful than man-made trans fats. Industrially produced trans fats have traditionally been used in baked goods, fried and processed foods - providing texture, flavour and helping to extend the shelf life of these items. Hard margarine (sold in blocks) is a common source of trans fats in our diet. Industrially produced trans fats not only increase the bad cholesterol in our bodies but also decreases good cholesterol. In 2018, Canada banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils, a major source of trans fats in Canadian diets.

Choosing the Best Fats

Instead of avoiding fats, we should be aiming to include healthier fats in our diet. Canada’s Food Guide recommends including small amounts of healthy fats in our diet every day. Remember, healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower, flaxseed and corn oil), avocados, nuts, seeds and fish. We should aim to limit the amount of saturated fats in our diet by reducing the amount of butter, higher fat dairy products and fatty cuts of animal meats. We should also aim to have zero trans fats in our diets.

Cooking with Fats and Oils

Each type of oil and fat has their own unique chemical structure, which plays a role in how they taste, smell and change when heated. This means that some oils and fats are better suited for salad dressing, while others work best for frying.

  • Salads - for salad dressings, aim to make or use salad dressings made with unsaturated fats such as olive, canola, avocado, flaxseed or sunflower oil. Experiment with making your own salad dressing by adding balsamic or red wine vinegar as well as garlic, dijon mustard, lemon juice and pepper.

  • Frying - when cooking with high heat aim to use unsaturated fats with a high smoke point. Oils and fats with lower smoke points (such as olive, coconut, sesame oil and butter) can break down at high temperatures, which can result in smoke and unpleasant flavours. Oils with higher smoke points (such as safflower, soybean, canola and corn oil) can withstand higher temperatures and are best for high heat cooking.

  • Sauteing or searing - these cooking techniques do not require extremely high temperatures, which means you can use unsaturated oils with lower smoke points. The same goes for other cooking methods such as grilling, roasting and braising. Good options include canola, peanut, sesame and safflower oil.

  • Baking - when baking, aim to use neutral flavoured unsaturated oils such as canola, sunflower, corn or vegetable oil. It’s important to note that oil and butter/lard/margarine and not completely interchangeable when baking - it is best to follow these recipes closely.

Making Healthy Fat Choices

Use these tips to make healthy fat choices

  • Use the nutrition label on food products to make healthy choices when buying packaged items. Use the % daily value or DV on the food label to help inform you - products with less than 5% daily value of fat are low fat choices while products with higher than 15% are high fat choices. The nutrition label will also say how much saturated and trans fats are found in the product - look for foods with 0 grams of trans fats.

  • Aim to include at least 2 servings per week of fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and trout - this will help meet your children’s omega-3 needs. Try kid friendly fish recipes such as teriyaki baked salmon or salmon cakes.

  • Purchase leaner cuts of meat such as skinless chicken and turkey, extra lean ground beef and pork tenderloin. You can also trim any visible fat off meat products as well as removing the skin from poultry before cooking.

  • Purchase lower fat milk products more often. For kids older than 2, that means 2% or 1% milk, yogurt and cottage cheese.

  • Experiment with different cooking methods that use less fat such as roasting, grilling, sauteing, stir frying, boiling, steaming and braising. Click here to learn more about healthy cooking methods.

  • Use spices, herbs, vinegars, garlic and lemon to flavour foods instead of adding extra fat.

  • Use vegetable oils more often in cooking instead of butter, lard or hard margarines.

  • Aim to include more nuts and seeds in your diet such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. These are great additions to salad, yogurt and breakfast cereal, adding flavour, crunch and healthy fats.

It is important to remember that our bodies need fat to survive and grow, which is especially true for infants and young children. Instead of cutting out fat from our diet, aim to include healthier fats such as vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.


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