Healthy Eating Section > FAT, The Misunderstood Nutrient

FAT, The Misunderstood Nutrient

"Fat is bad for you", "Zero-fat diet", "Stay away from fat entirely". These are the messages that have been showered upon the public. However, we shouldn't be afraid of fat. Fat is important in many ways. The key is not to indulge in it but to be sensible. 

The media has brought us to the state where we believe that having fat in our diet is altogether unhealthy. So, the common belief was, "better to stay away from fat, especially saturated fat".

The "saturated fat phobia" has arisen mainly because epidemiological (population) studies have consistently shown that high saturated fat intake is positively associated with both raised blood cholesterol levels and risk of heart attack.This has created an irrational fear that has led to the over-simplistic view that saturated fat is "bad" while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are "good". 

Importance of Fat 
Food won't taste the same without fat, because it guides our sense of taste - from tasty to spicy and sweet-sour. More importantly, dietary fats provides the essential fatty acids (EFA), which the body cannot synthesise (manufacture). They also act as transport vehicles for the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), particularly during absorption. Fat also provides energy and help maintains body temperature. 

It is only when consumed in excess that dietary fats may increase body weight and risk of hypertension, diabetes, and heart diseases. 

Fat in Food Preparation 
Fat appears naturally in many foods, but it is also added to food during preparation. In fact, most of the fat we consume is added during food preparation. The typical Malaysian meal (lunch or dinner) is commonly prepared using a cooking oil which actually forms our main source of dietary fat. 

For teenagers and adults, the amount of cooking oil used per person for each meal (based on daily cooking oil usage in the kitchen) is estimated to be about 1 to 1 tablespoons (15-22g). When you consider the two main meals of the day (lunch and dinner), breakfast and fried snacks eaten during the day, the total cooking oil used can easily add up to 35-45g of dietary fat. This amount is actually not excessive but it reflects how cooking oil can contribute up to two-thirds of total fat in the local diet! 

Healthy Approach to Fat 
The average total fat intake of urban Malaysian adults is actually within the "healthy range" recommended in the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 1999. This suggests that the increasing prevalence of obesity in Malaysia is probably due to sedentary lifestyles and the availability of numerous culinary delights. 

Although we are currently complying to the "standard" recommendation of "no more than 30% of energy" for total fat intake, this target was actually meant for those western populations that were consuming 40% of energy or more as fat in the early 1980s. Rationally, we may wish to consider a dietary target of "20-25% of energy total fat" instead. This lower target is easily achievable by either using less cooking oil in food preparation, or using other methods of cooking such as steaming and grilling. Here's another easy tip to cut down on fat: try draining the oily gravy or curry when you select your food. 

At the lower end of the spectrum, minimum total fat intake should be at least 15% of energy (38g for males, 30g for females), otherwise there would be a problem in meeting daily energy and EFA needs, as well as pleasing the discerning palate! 

- By Dr Tony Ng Kock Wai 
Research Officer, Division of Human Nutrition, Institute for Medical Research Hon. Secretary of the Nutrition Society Of Malaysia 


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