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Fats & Your Health

Fats and oils are found in foods of both plant and animal origin. Fats include oils which are liquid at room temperature – like olive oil or canola oil - and fats that are firm or solid at room temperature – like lard or butter. Fats and oils are made up of components called fatty acids. Some fatty acids can be made by the body but some cannot and these are known as “essential fatty acids” because we have to get them from the food we eat.These essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

What types of fat are found in food?

There are three different types of fat found in food: “saturated”, “polyunsaturated”, and “monounsaturated”. They differ in their chemical structure and vary in the way they affect the body.

Each of these fats can be found in animal and plant foods, although animal fat is usually saturated, while plant (or vegetable)fatisusuallyunsaturated.Palmandcoconutoils are an exception to this rule, as they are mainly saturated fat. Foods often contain a mixture of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats.A fat or oil is referred to as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated depending on which type of fat is present in the largest amounts. For example, canola oil contains approximately 7% saturated fat, 30% polyunsaturated fat (a mixture of Omega-3 and Omega-6) and 63% monounsaturated fat. It is therefore referred to as monounsaturated oil.

What do fats do?

  • Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are needed for normal growth and development and for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. They are used in the production of hormones that help regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, blood fats, inflammation and the immune system
  • All fats act as insulators for the body
  • Fat helps to form protective padding around vital organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys
  • Fat is a concentrated source of energy (kilojoules)
  • Fats are the carriers of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K

Which foods are richest in essential fatty acids?

Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids include: oily fish, walnuts, canola oil and eggs. Foods rich in Omega-6 fatty acids include: meat, safflower oil, sunflower oil and pumpkin seeds.

How much fat do you need ?

The amount of fat a person needs depends on their age, sex, body size and composition, activity levels, family history and health status. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that, we should ideally eat a diet low in fat, and particularly low in saturated fat.7The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that less than 25-35% of our total energy (kilojoules) should come from fat with less than 10% of energy coming from saturated and trans fats.

Tips for eating a balanced, low- fat diet

A balanced diet consists of fresh vegetables, fruit, cereals, legumes, grains, bread and pasta and moderate amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils. Eat lean meats and chicken, and try to include fish two to three times per week as they are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids, as are eggs.

Why do we need to eat less fat ?

Fats are a very concentrated form of energy (37kJ/gram) having nearly twice the kilojoules content of protein or carbohydrate (17kJ/gram). Our bodies need fat but many Australians8 consume foods that contain too much fat, especially too much saturated fat.This can lead directly or indirectly to a number of serious health problems including:

  • Coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure
  • Weight gain leading to being overweight or obese. This is strongly associated with ill health especially when the fat is located around the waist
  • Non-insulin dependent diabetes
  • Some types of cancers

Fatty foods can be replaced with delicious and healthy alternatives, such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads, legumes, seeds and wholegrain cereals and lean protein foods.

Tips for cutting down on fat

  • When buying packaged food, read the label and choose foods with less than 10% fat (less than 10g per 100g) and pay attention to the saturated fat (aim less than 3%) and trans fat (aim for less than 0.1%) content
  • Make an effort to use less spreads or use low-fat alternatives on breads and crispbreads
  • Use vegetable oil based margarines, which are much lower in saturated fat than butter
  • When cooking use a non-stick pan or lightly spray the pan with oil. When a recipe calls for ‘browning’, water or wine can be used instead of fat
  • Grill, steam, poach, microwave or dry bake food
  • Place meat on a rack when grilling, roasting or baking to drain away the fat
  • Trim away visible fat from meat and remove the skin from chicken before cooking
  • Use fresh meats rather than sausages and sandwich meats such as salami, strassburg and kabana, which are particularly high in fat and salt
  • Eat fish often. Choose fresh fillets rather than frozen types that have already been fried. When buying canned fish choose the varieties that are canned in spring water or drain some of the oil
  • Use low-fat and reduced fat dairy products. (Full fat choices for children under 5)
  • Use low-fat yogurt on baked potatoes and no oilUse salad dressings made with polyunsaturated or
  • Monounsaturated oils. Take care with some creamy dressings which can be high in saturated fats
  • Use less meat and more legumes (dried peas, beans and lentils) in stews, casseroles and soups
  • Let home-made stews, casseroles and soups cool in the fridge so fat solidifies on the surface and then remove it before reheating
  • Avoid hidden fats by limiting foods that are coated in batter or crumbs and snack foods such as pastries, cakes, biscuits and fatty, savoury foods such as potato chips, wherever possible

This fact sheet contains general information. Please consult your healthcare professional for specific advice for your personal situation.

If you would like current information about our products please visit or call our Consumer Services Department during business hours on 0800 830 840.

Other Nutrition Fact Sheets that might interest you:


Understanding fat and cholesterol Heart Foundation (8 June 2010) includes other useful links

Heart Foundation 2008 Position statement “Dietary fats and dietary sterols for cardiovascular health”

Heart Foundation 2009 Summary of evidence “Dietary fats and dietary cholesterol for cardiovascular health”

Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand: Recommendations to reduce chronic disease risk.

ISSFAL 2010 Dinner Debate: Healthy Fats for Healthy Hearts – Annotated Report of a Scientific Discussion Ann Nutr Metab 2011;58:59–65 Published online March 24 2011

Milk fat and health consequences. Gibson RA: Nestle Nutr Workshop Ser Pediatr Program. 2011;67:197-207. Epub 2011 Feb 16.

n-6 Fatty acids and cardiovascular health: a review of the evidence for dietary intake recommendations. Czernichow S, Thomas D, Bruckert E. Br J Nutr. 2010 Sep;104(6):788-96. Epub 2010 Jun 4.

n-6 fatty acid-specific and mixed polyunsaturate dietary interventions have different effects on CHD risk: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Ramsden CE, Hibbeln JR, Majchrzak SF, Davis JM. Br J Nutr. 2010 Dec;104(11):1586-600.

Dyerberg J. Eskesen DC. Andersen PW. Astrup A. Buemann B. Christensen JH. Clausen P. Rasmussen BF. Schmidt EB. Tholstrup T. Toft E. Toubro S. Stender S. Effects of trans- and n-3 unsaturated fatty acids on cardiovascular risk markers in healthy males. An 8 weeks dietary intervention study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004; 58:1062-70.

Australian Dietary Guidelines. (pdf, 1.6 Mb) Department of Health and Ageing; National Health and Medical Research Council: Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand including Recommended Dietary Intakes. Commonwealth of Australia 2006