Fats and oils

Key points about fats and oils

  • Fats are a group of compounds that make an important contribution to our nutrition.
  • They are major sources of energy and the only way in which your body can store energy for a long period of time.
  • However some fats are better for you than others.
  • One part of eating for a healthy heart and brain is eating more foods that contain unsaturated fats (like nuts, seeds, avocado, healthy oils, oily fish), and fewer foods that contain saturated fats (animal fats).
Food with healthy fats on a wooden table
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Fats are a group of compounds that make an important contribution to our nutrition, despite their bad press. There are different types of fats and some provide a good source of the fat we need, while others are better avoided.

Saturated fats

These are considered the ‘bad’ fats because of their link to heart disease and should be eaten in small amounts. They come mostly from animal products, especially fatty meats, and dairy products, like butter, full-fat milk and cheese, but also from coconut and palm oil. Fast foods are also major contributors.

Eating saturated fat increases both good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. Controlling your LDL cholesterol level is the best-known way of lessening your risk of coronary heart disease, so eating fewer of the foods that contain large amounts of saturated fat is an important way to do this.

Trans fats

We don’t need these fats in our diet at all. Although they are unsaturated, when food manufacturers 'hygrogenate' them to make them firm, they become more like saturated fats in their effects on blood cholesterol. Not only do they increase our levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol, but they also decrease our levels of good (HDL) cholesterol.

Mostly these fats come from manufactured foods, like some margarines and peanut butters, biscuits, crackers, cakes and potato chips. However, most spreads now available in New Zealand and Australia only contain a small proportion of trans fats.

Check food labels to see if what you are buying contains trans fats.

Unsaturated fats

These are often referred to as the ‘good’ fats as they don’t have the same effect on blood cholesterol levels as saturated and trans fats. As a result, they are not as much of a concern to our health as they don’t increase the risk of heart disease. They are still a type of fat and all fats when eaten in quantities greater than our bodies need can lead to weight gain.

Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. 

Foods containing unsaturated fats


Image credit: Canva

Fats are major sources of energy and the only way in which the body can store energy for a long period of time. Fats also:

  • help control body temperature
  • give some protection to internal organs
  • supply essential fatty acids (those that can’t be made by the body)
  • make up the structure and function of cell membranes
  • ensure absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins
  • fill us up
  • make some foods taste better.

Getting the right balance of how much and what type of fat to eat is important. It's better for our heart and our brain to eat plant-based fats and oils (except coconut and palm oils) instead of animal-based fats and oils, eg, butter and meat fat.

Saturated Monounsaturated Polyunsaturated

Chicken fat & skin
Cocoa butter
Coconut (including cream, milk, milk powder & oil)
Cream cheese
Palm oil 
Partially hydrogenated fat
Reduced fat or ordinary sour cream
Semi-soft butter
Visible meat fat

Almonds and almond oil
Avocado & avocado oil
Canola oil & margarines
Cashew nuts Hazelnuts
Macadamia nuts
Olive oil & margarines
Peanuts & peanut oil Pistachio nuts
Rice bran oil & margarines

Brazil nuts
Flaxseed oil
Fish oil capsules
Grapeseed oil
Oily fish
Pine nuts
Pumpkin seeds
Safflower oil
Sesame oil
Sesame seeds
Soy oil
Sunflower oil or margarine
Sunflower seeds
Wheatgerm & wheatgerm oil


  • Too much fat can cause us to gain weight especially if you don't exercise enough, even if you choose the ‘healthy’ fats.
  • Eating too much saturated fat and trans fats (see above), can increase cholesterol levels and our risk of heart disease and a number of other diseases. With nearly one quarter of New Zealanders having high cholesterol, we need to start changing the type of fat we eat.
  • A typical New Zealander’s diet contains around 35% of total energy as fat, whereas the goal is 20-25% and our saturated fat intake is 15% of total energy, instead of 12%.
  • Remember, we all need some fat in our diets – so it’s best to choose the healthy ones!

More about saturated fat and trans fats(external link) Heart Foundation NZ
Food and nutrition guidelines(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora


Fat [PDF, 165 KB] Auckland DHB, NZ, 2011-2013
Choose a balance of healthy food every day poster [JPG, 147 KB] Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2020
Butter factsheet(external link) Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2020
Behind the hype – coconut oil(external link) Health Ed and Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2019


adhb fat


Auckland DHB, NZ, 2011-2013

behind the hype coconut oil

Behind the hype – coconut oil

Health Ed and Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2019

butter image 0

Butter factsheet

Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2020

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Julie Carter (NZRD), Community Liaison Dietitian, Auckland DHB

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