Good and bad fats explained

June 21, 2019 6:50 am Published by 3 Comments

Getting your head around the whole issue of fats can be pretty hard. Some fats are good, we’re told. Others are bad. But sometimes, bad fats get pushed onto the good list. And what on earth is the difference between unsaturated, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats? What makes a fat good or bad?

Is this a good or bad fat?

Good or bad fat?

We all need fat

We all need fat in our diets. It’s how we obtain the essential fatty acids that we can’t make ourselves and it’s how our bodies absorb the vital vitamins A, D and E. Fat builds our cell membranes, makes our blood clot and our muscles move. Children, in particular, need plenty of fat in their diets, as they ‘burn’ significantly more of it than adults, simply through growing and developing.

Too much fat, however, is as bad as too little. Too much raises cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Is full fat good?

Children should eat ‘full fat’ products – and many people believe that adults should too (it’s noticeable that these are often some of the thinnest people you’ll ever meet!). Thin full-fatters often explain their diets thus: full fat products fill you up properly – you therefore need less of them. Full fat products taste great – the producers don’t need to add extra salt, sugar, emulsifiers, flavourings or additives, so you eat a much more natural and thus healthier product.


Plenty of scientists disagree, but most accept that there is a compromise. Optimum health requires us to limit the amount of fat in our diets to a certain level. It’s fine, say most scientists, to eat full fat products – you just have to eat significantly less of them than you would if they were lower in fat.

Now let’s take a look at different types of fat.

What’s saturated fat?

It sounds rather nasty, doesn’t it: a kind of oozing fattiness that’s saturated every atom or cell and is spilling over the edges. But it’s not quite like that! Saturated fats are simply a type of fat in which all the fatty acid molecules have single bonds. Assuming that makes no sense, here’s Wikipedia:

‘A fat is made of two kinds of smaller molecules: monoglyceride and fatty acids. Fats are made of long chains of carbon atoms. Some carbon atoms are linked by single bonds and others are linked by double bonds. Double bonds can react with hydrogen to form single bonds. They are called saturated, because the second bond is broken up and each half of the bond is attached to (saturated with) a hydrogen atom.’

In brief, when we talk about fats, we’re talking about a chain of carbon atoms that are bonded to hydrogen atoms. The length of the chain in each case, its shape, and the number of hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon atoms, is what makes that particular fat saturated or unsaturated.

We stock saturated fats at Naturally Good Food, in the form of coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter).

What’s unsaturated fat?

Unsaturated fats are fats that don’t fit into the definition above. They’re a chain of fatty acids in which there is at least one double bond. There are three types of unsaturated fats to consider:

  • mononunsaturated fat
  • polyunsaturated fat
  • trans fats

What’s monounsaturated fat?

Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include avocados, olives, olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachios – and the oils made from these nuts. If you tend to use olive or rapeseed oil when cooking, you’ll be taking in a fair amount of monounsaturated fat.

This type of fat has one double bond in the fatty acid chain, with all of the remaining carbon atoms being single-bonded.

What’s polyunsaturated fat?

Polyunsaturated fats, meanwhile, have more than one double bond in the chain. You’ll find this kind of fat in oily fish, corn oil, sesame oil and soya oil, as well as in linseed, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts – and in oils made from those products.

Those who prefer to cook with sunflower oil will find that they’re mostly taking in polyunsaturated fat.

What are trans fats?

Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that’s found in small amounts in nature, but is now widely produced industrially. Trans fats are ‘partially hydrogenated’: they’re a byproduct of hydrogenation, a process which aims to make a fat easier to melt and use. During partial hydrogenation, some of the unsaturated fats’ double bonds are converted into ‘trans double bonds’ by an isomerization reaction. In short, and to put it very simply, these are highly processed fats.

What’s a good fat?

It’s widely agreed that unsaturated fats are the best for us. Monounsaturated fats help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels; polyunsaturated fats do so too, and also provide essential fatty acids.

But saturated fats – once demonised, then hugely fashionable, now a little on the back-burner – are also thought to have significant health benefits, including for our liver function and immune systems. Many also claim that they too can have beneficial effects on cholesterol and consider them to be a more ‘natural’ and healthier choice, certainly when compared with hydrogenated oils.

It’s worth pointing out that both saturated and unsaturated fats are found together in most foodstuffs. For instance, olive oil, a great source – as noted above – of monounsaturated fat, also contains saturated fat!

It’s clear that no fat, unsaturated or saturated, is good if you eat too much of it. It’s recommended that fats of any kind shouldn’t make up more than 30% of our daily calorific intake.

What’s a bad fat?

There’s one type of fat that’s never going to make it onto the good list – and that’s trans fat. Trans fats are acknowledged simply to be bad for us. They’ve been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, to raise levels of harmful cholesterol in the body, to worsen inflammation and to contribute to insulin resistance. They’re banned in many countries worldwide and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is sufficiently concerned about them to have introduced a guide to removing them from the global food supply entirely.

Some trans fats are still used in the UK, but in very small quantities. If food packaging mentions ‘partially hydrogenated’ fats, then it’s trans fats they’re talking about. Fully hydrogenated fats, as it happens, don’t contain any trans fats, but there are health concerns about them too, relating to the industrial processes they’ve undergone.

In our opinion, all trans fats and (partially or fully) hydrogenated fats are to be avoided.

Where do I get my fats?

From Naturally Good Food, of course! We stock cold-pressed, unrefined, organic, extra-virgin and natural plant-based oils of all kinds, including an amazing range of coconut oils. We also sell ghee. Our oils are thick, unctuous, grassy, golden, deep-green, nut-brown, shimmering white and everything else you’d expect from the finest of fats. You can use them to cook with, to drizzle, to massage, or to gulp down. There’s an oil for every purpose and for every person – and you can see them all here.

The fat debate is likely to keep nutritionists and scientists in employment for generations to come. As ever, the most sensible advice seems to be to eat a varied diet, including both saturated and unsaturated fats. Eat fat, like everything else, in moderation, and keep within the government guidelines. But when you do eat fat, make it count: eat fat of the highest quality, for the best taste and the greatest benefits.

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne


  • Christopher James says:

    The problem with your guide is that it relies heavily on what scientists believe is good and bad. Sadly the large majority of those same so-called experts do not have a clue to what they are talking about.

    Many decades ago, the western world was duped by the saturated fat hypothesis, and thus, many of our modern scientists were schooled in this false doctrine. Indeed even as I write, universities across the world still continue to teach such unfounded rubbish.

  • David Fraser says:

    Good comment. There is much evidence that all oil is bad and that we should be getting our fats from nuts and seeds, avocados etc A whole food plant based diet without sugar and oils and animal products is the way forward.

    • Christopher James says:

      Decades ago, when farming was naturally the toil of good honest men, saturated animal fats were indeed good for us.

      Sadly, with the advent of the heinous ‘Roundup’ and genetically modified crops, especially ‘soya’, the vast majority of modern day animal food products are truly unfit for human consumption.

      Then again, we have the same ‘Evil’ corporations endeavouring to destroy animal farming altogether through the introduction of meat grown in the laboratory. Thus, which should we fear most, the insidious control of humanity by ‘Evil’ conglomerates or the hapless propaganda asserted over healthy fats?

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