What is fat?

Fat may not have the best reputation, but it is a key part of a balanced diet. In this post, we explain why you should be prioritising unsaturated fatty acids in your diet.

01.03.2021

Lara Brunner

Fat is the third main nutrient in the human diet, alongside protein and carbohydrates. Fat is the nutrient that provides the body with the most energy. Fat provides 9 kilocalories per gram. That’s twice as much as carbohydrates and protein. Fat transports the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and it also carries flavours and aromas. The fatty tissue in the body insulates and cushions the internal organs. It also regulates body temperature and stores energy.

An overview of all fat and water-soluble vitamins

Dietary fats are also called triglycerides. Each triglyceride consists of glycerine and three fatty acids. The total amount of fat we consume is a relevant factor for our health. However, the content of various fatty acids also plays a role. Fatty acids can be divided into three main groups: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential as the body cannot produce them on its own. That means we have to obtain them from the food we eat.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance. It is often called “blood fat”, although that is not chemically correct. It forms cell membranes and produces sex hormones, vitamin D and bile acid in the body. Cholesterol is found in animal-based foods. The substance has an impact on blood lipid levels. However, the extent of this impact has long been overestimated. Since everyone reacts differently to cholesterol, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office does not specify a maximum daily intake.

Sources: milk, dairy products, butter, egg yolks, fish, seafood, meat, offal, sausages

The different fatty acids

Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are highly reactive. The body therefore uses them for many organic processes. Saturated fatty acids, on the other hand, are inert, i.e. not chemically reactive. Nevertheless, they also play important roles.

Saturated fatty acids

Examples of saturated fatty acids include lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acid. The body mainly uses them as a source of energy. But they also help to fix organs in the right place and protect them. They are found in meat products and sausages, butter, milk, dairy products and coconut oil.

Monounsaturated fatty acids

Just like saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids primarily provide the body with energy. Examples of this type of fat include oleic and palmitoleic acid. Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in the following foods: olive oil, rapeseed oil, HOLL rapeseed oil, peanut oil, peanuts, avocados, hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios.

Good to know: HOLL rapeseed oil is significantly more heat-resistant than normal rapeseed oil. “HOLL” stands for high oleic, low linolenic. HOLL rapeseed oil therefore contains a lot of oleic acid but not much linolenic acid. This means that it retains its nutritional benefits even at high temperatures. The fatty acids are not destroyed and no harmful substances are produced.

More about HOLL rapeseed oil (in German)

Polyunsaturated fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Omega-6 fatty acids: linolenic acid, arachidonic acid

The body uses polyunsaturated fatty acids to produce important tissue hormones, which regulate inflammation, for example. DHA also contributes to brain development and ensures that the heart and immune system function normally.

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include rapeseed oil, linseed oil, soybean oil, walnuts, leafy greens and fatty fish. Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, are found in sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, meat, butter, milk, dairy products and egg yolks.

Trans-fatty acids (TFA)

Trans-fatty acids are altered unsaturated fatty acids. They are produced when oils are industrially hardened, refined or deodorised. In the latter process, specific odours are deliberately covered up. Too much heat can also convert oils with a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids into TFA. They occur naturally in the digestive systems of ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats. Trans-fatty acids increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Sources: baked goods, muesli bars, butter, milk and dairy products, meat

It’s important to have a balanced diet

In a balanced diet, fat should account for 20 to 35 per cent of our daily calorie intake. With a total intake of 2,000 kilocalories, that’s about 44 to 78 g. This amount should be distributed across the different fatty acids as follows:

  • Saturated fatty acids: < 10 per cent
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids: 10 to 15 per cent
  • Essential omega-3 fatty acids: approx. 0.7 per cent
  • Essential omega-6 fatty acids: 2.5 to 9 per cent

There are 10 g of fat in 10 g of oil or 12 g of butter or margarine. But there are also various foods that contain hidden fat. For example, there are also 10 g of fat in 15 g of walnuts, 30 g of milk chocolate, 30 g of full-fat Gruyère cheese or 75 g of fresh salmon.

More tips for a balanced diet

Do you have questions about your diet?

Our Health Consultation advisors will show you how to achieve a balanced and nutritious diet.

How to replace saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids

Most of us consume too many saturated fatty acids. With these simple tips, you can start incorporating more unsaturated fatty acids into your diet:

  • Plant-based fat instead of animal-based fat
  • Cook your food in oil instead of concentrated butter
  • Fish instead of meat
  • Nuts instead of chocolate and biscuits
  • Cold-pressed vegetable oils on salads instead of yoghurt or French dressing
  • Plant-based spreads instead of cheese or salami

Sarah Ehmer, health management expert Sarah Ehmer, health management expert

Sarah Ehmer, health management expert

Sarah Ehmer (Msc in Health Education) joined Helsana in 2019. As a health management specialist, she helps customers engage with prevention and health promotion. Sarah Ehmer gave the editorial team advice and input for this article.

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