There's been a recent shift in public opinion when it comes to fat. What was once demonised as the cause of all weight gain (plus heart disease and many other health conditions) is now being applauded for being the exact opposite. We've seen the rise of paleo lifestyles and butter enthusiasts and we're now being encouraged to once again eat the fat on our steak and slather butter on our bread. But is such a complete one eighty warranted? Should you really be eating spoonfuls of coconut oil or dropping butter in your coffee? (Yes, it's a thing!).
Well, to answer that I first need to explain that there are different types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. And unsaturated fats can be categorised further into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. So what's the difference? Without getting into the nitty gritty of the science, unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish, have typically been termed 'good fats' and saturated fats, found in animal products, butter, vegetable oils, full cream dairy and coconut, have been typically been termed 'bad fats'. This is because most of the research we've had up until recently has shown that unsaturated fats can decrease our cholesterol and protect our hearts and other organs, while saturated fat does the opposite. Let's also remember though, that saturated fats are typically found in very high quantities in many of the foods deemed 'junk' which we know aren't great for our health: think hot chips, pastries, cakes, chocolate bars etc.
"… unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish, have typically been termed 'good fats' and saturated fats, found in animal products, butter, vegetable oils, full cream dairy and coconut, have been typically been termed 'bad fats'."
Recently there has been some emerging research on fat which told us to 'loosen the shackles because saturated fat might not be as bad as we once thought', but was then interpreted as 'eat all the butter you want!'. Well, I don't mean to burst that bubble the media has so carefully crafted, but the science wasn't quite that robust. What it really proves is that when saturated fat is replaced with refined carbohydrates, health worsens (so, not quite the same as saying saturated fat is healthy, just that it's better than refined carbs). But also, that there are different types of saturated fats, some better for our cholesterol and overall health than others.
So while saturated fat may no longer adversely affect your health, we can't yet definitely say that it will be beneficial to your health. And let's not forget that there is also still a hell of a lot more evidence on the health benefits of unsaturated fats (a part which I think has been largely ignored).
The verdict? I'm afraid the jury's still out on this one because we still need more research into the effects saturated fat on health. Our bodies certainly do need fat in general, but remember that gram for gram, fat is still the most energy dense macronutrient, so probably don't get into the habit of going through half a tub of coconut oil in a day, or eating croissants every day for brekky. I recommend eating a moderate amount of a variety of fats (rather than betting all your chips on just one type). And by moderate amount I mean a few serves a day in the following quantities: 1 tablespoon of any oil, 2 teaspoons of butter, a small handful of nuts or seeds, a small fillet fresh salmon, 100g regular mince, one quarter of an avocado or a 200g tub of full fat yoghurt.