Which types of fat to use?

Andrea Zentai, Nutritionist

It is a frequently asked question whether we should prefer butter or margarine in our daily diet. Many people have an aversion towards margarine but international nutrition recommendations seem to be in agreement on advising against butter, due to its high energy and saturated fatty acid content. My own answer usually is that cold pressed oils and pestos or other spreads made with them are excellent substitutes for these fats.

This inevitably raises another question: do we have any need at all for fats, in addition to the fats found in our foods (e.g. cheeses, cottage cheese, sour cream, cream, meats, fish and fish products as well as processed foods can all have a relatively high fat content) – after all, it has become a mantra that we should reduce our fat intake.

The answer to the second question is yes - our body does have a need for quality fats although in a small amount. There are certain fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) that cannot get absorbed and utilized without them. Furthermore, fats play an important role in the building of certain hormones and have an effect of protecting the vascular system. These are all strong reasons why we need to pay conscious attention to the regular intake of quality fats. As a general guideline, it is recommendable that about 20-35% of the total energy intake comes from fats.

From the point of view of health and nutrition, fats can be grouped on the basis of the saturated or unsaturated fatty acids found in them. The fat in foods of animal origin (with the exception of fish) contain predominantly saturated fatty acids. Eating foods rich in saturated fats can lead to the increase of LDL, or bad cholesterol as well as of the total cholesterol quantity in the blood, thereby increasing the risk of arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases.

A 10% increase of the average serum cholesterol level in a population is likely to result in a 20-25% increase in heart attacks in the following years.

In contrast, most foods of vegetable origin (such as oils and oily seeds), it is the unsaturated fatty acids that dominate (mono or poly unsaturated fatty acids, e.g. omega-3), which have a positive effect on health. Therefore, it is important that the major part of our total fat consumption should come from foods of vegetable origin. But even within this category, attention must be paid to their proportion: the consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids should be 1:3 - 1:5. Unfortunately, this intake rate is only 1:30 in Hungary, according to the survey of OÉTI (National Institute for Food and Nutrition Science). There are also recommendations for the daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids: 1,6 gram/day for men; 1,1 gram/day for women.

The omega-3 fatty acids are well known to have several beneficial effects.

They reduce the level of triglyceride in the blood (and thereby the risk of cardiovascular diseases), also reduce the risk of blood clots and temper high blood pressure.

Studies are in the pipeline about the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of diabetes and certain cancers.

We can get omega-3 fatty acids from food products both of vegetable (e.g. almond, linseed, chia seed, camelina seed) and animal (such as sea fish, e.g. mackerel, sardine, herring, salmon and local Hungarian fish, e.g. silver carp) origin.

It is important to know that there are significant differences in the constitution of oils. Chia seed oil, flaxseed oil and camelina oil have an optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Our body does have a need for quality fats

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