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Fat Facts of Mediterranean Foods

In this edition, expanding on components of the Mediterranean way of eating we’re looking at fats. Fat, like protein and carbohydrate, is a macronutrient, meaning we need the most of these nutrients in our diet. Striving to lose body fat, many fad diets of past advocate removal of fat from our diet altogether. In truth, fat is vital for many functions. We often don’t like the idea of body fat, but it keeps us warm and is an important energy source. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins, so we need fats in our diet to absorb them. Fat is also needed for cell function and growth and certain ‘good’ fats (e.g. fish oils) can help reduce total cholesterol (LDL - the 'bad' cholesterol).

The fats to avoid are the ones that are relatively solid at room temperature also known as saturated fats. These include animal fat from beef, chicken & pork, dairy foods and some plant fats such as coconut oil and palm oil. These fats do give flavour and 'mouthfeel' which adds to the enjoyment of food. However, excess saturated fat in our diet can contribute to poor health associated with obesity, atherosclerosis and heart disease. Generally, fats that are beneficial to health are liquid at room temperature and are called unsaturated fats. Some are mono-unsaturated and some are poly-unsaturated but that chemistry lesson can wait for another time. Included in this group is olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, nut & seed oils and of course, fish oil. Consumption of these fats have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease, inflammation and certain cancers.

What foods in the Mediterranean diet have good fats?

The best known source of mono-unsaturated fats is olive oil. It is used in abundance in Mediterranean cuisine. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the best choice as it’s had the least processing (usually heat & chemicals) which can remove the natural antioxidants and health benefits. For this reason, look for ‘first cold pressed’ EVOO.

Fatty fish and other seafoods are also prominent sources of healthy fats in the Mediterranean. Salmon, sardines and octopus are great examples. Some fish such as mackerel and snapper are also high in healthy fats, though may have higher mercury levels and so is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women to have more than 1 serve per fortnight.

Walnuts, pecans, peanuts, flaxseeds and sesame seeds are all delicious additions to main dishes, salads, snacks and desserts. Make sure you choose unsalted. Peanut butter is a terrific addition to smoothies. Check out my analysis on various peanut butters.

How much fat should I have?

The recommendation is for energy from fat (mostly unsaturated fats) be between 20% - 35% of your total energy intake, with no more than 10% being saturated fat. What does that look like? On average, adults consume 8,700kj per day (of course this varies – but good for this example – here is a simple calculator to work out your own). But for our example, 30% of total energy is 2,610kj. Some estimates are:

What is the best time to have fats?

It’s a good idea to have a little bit of fat with every meal as research has shown that fat (and protein) reduce the glycemic response of the carbohydrates in your meal. This means it makes you feel fuller for longer and gives you longer lasting energy. The fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) absorb better when consumed with fat, so having olive oil or fatty fish with your veg is a bonus!

Summing up – to improve your health enjoy your fats, in moderation, choose healthy sources and eat a wide variety of colourful foods.

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