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Just as we all need to eat protein and carbohydrate, we also need to eat fat.

Fat has several very important roles in our bodies. Our cells need it to be healthy, and we also need it so we can absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are called fat soluble, which means we can only absorb them with the help of fat.

Fat can also provide us with energy (kilojoules or calories) and acts like a natural shock absorber, helping to protect our bones and organs.

While it's important to eat some fat, it's also important to choose the right type of fat.

Healthy and unhealthy fats

Healthy fats (sometimes called unsaturated, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat) help to lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides (types of fat in your body). They also reduce your risk of heart disease, especially if you use them instead of unhealthy fats.

Unhealthy fats (sometimes called saturated fat) can raise blood cholesterol, clog arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.

healthy fatsHealthy fats include fish oil and most plant-based oils (for example olive, canola, soybean, sunflower and rice bran). You can find them in:

But while these are healthy fats, they still provide lots of energy, so it's important not to eat too much of them. We only need small amounts to get benefits from them. One to two tablespoons of a good oil, or some nuts, avocado, salad dressing or mayonnaise is enough for one day.

Unhealthy fats, sometimes called saturated fats, include coconut and palm oil and most animal fats (such as meat fat, chicken fat, butter, lard, dripping, cream, sour cream and the fat in full-fat milk, milk products and cheese).

These fats are in many common foods, such as:

Ways to eat less unhealthy fat

Try to limit how much unhealthy fat you eat. There are some simple ways you can do this:

There have been a lot of claims that saturated fats (such as butter) and coconut oil aren't all that bad for us and could actually be good for us. But the evidence doesn't support this, and the Ministry of Health doesn't recommend using these fats. Instead, it recommends we use plant-based oils and spreads.

The Heart Foundation has good articles explaining whether butter is good for you and whether coconut oil is good for you.

On the next page: Protein

Written by nutrition student, Ara Institute of Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2022.


Page reference: 425843

Review key: HIHEI-34305