Contrary to popular belief, fat is an essential nutrient with a host of important functions within the body. It is essential for supplying the body with omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids, producing healthy cell membranes and maximising the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble antioxidants (such as lycopene and beta-carotene).  Fat is found in many foods and comes from both animal and vegetable sources.

Energy density of fat

Fat often receives bad press, but it is eating too much of certain types of fats and not enough of others which is detrimental, not fat per se.  Fat is energy-dense, meaning it contains a lot of energy (kilojoules/calories) in a small quantity (37kJ/g), making it easy to eat more than we need.

Different types of fat

The main types of fat are saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fats. 

Saturated fat increases total cholesterol by increasing the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, so it should be eaten in the smallest amounts. We should aim to reduce saturated fats in the foods we eat, and where fat is used, choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats appear to protect against heart disease, by increasing the levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.  

Polyunsaturated fats can be further divided into omega–3 and omega–6. Omega-3 fats have a positive impact on heart health and an important role in brain and eye function. Omega-6 fats are necessary for growth and the synthesis of hormone type compounds.

Trans fats are formed mainly during the process of hydrogenation of edible oils to make solid fats used in shortenings and margarines. Trace amounts can be produced in the heating and frying of oils at high temperatures. They are also found naturally in beef, mutton, lamb and dairy fat.

Like saturated fat, but thought to be even more harmful, manufactured trans fats increase ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in our blood, a risk factor for heart disease. In addition, trans fats may also decrease levels of the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, making the effect of trans fat worse than saturated fat. Currently in New Zealand, we eat well below the recommended levels of trans fat suggested by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is well below many other countries (mainly due to the low levels of trans fats in our margarines, compared with the US and UK). However, we are eating too much saturated fat, and need to try to reduce this as a population.

Common food sources for each type of fat 

Types of Fat Source of Fat
Saturated Butter, cheese, meat fat, meat products (sausages, hamburgers), full-fat milk and yoghurt, pies, pastries, biscuits, cakes, lard, dripping, hard margarines and baking fats, coconut and palm oil.
´╗┐´╗┐Monounsaturated Olive oil, canola oil, nuts (pistachio, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, cashew, pecan, peanut) and the oils from these nuts, avocadoes, avocado oil, lean meat
Polyunsaturated Long chain Omega-3 polyunsaturated: Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout), Alpha linolenic acid from walnuts, lean red meat, canola oil, soybean, flax seed, and their oils. Omega-6 polyunsaturated: sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame, walnuts, soybean, corn and their oils. Certain margarines.
Trans Certain margarines, shortenings, biscuits, baked goods


  • All fat contains the same number of kilojoules/calories, regardless of which type of fat it contains. So use fats and oils sparingly if you are watching your weight.
  • Use low-fat cooking methods such as grilling, baking and microwaving instead of frying to reduce the amount of fat and oil.
  • Compare labels to choose lower-fat products – a food is considered low in fat if the total fat level less than 10g/100g (or 10%). Choose foods that have a low proportion of saturated fat compared to total fat – the rest will be made up of the healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Easy ways to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat is by choosing low-fat milk or yoghurt and lean cuts of meat, removing any visible fat from meat and skin from chicken, and choosing margarine and vegetable oils (such as olive and canola oils or spreads) rather than butter. 
  • Some oils break down when they are cooked at high temperatures. For frying, use canola, sesame, peanut or rice bran oils. Olive oils are best on salads and for low-temperature cooking.
  • Visit the Heart Foundation NZ at www.heartfoundation.org.nz for information on fat and heart health