Fat

Looking at fats and oils in the diet and how they our affect health

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Fat in a healthy diet

What is fat and what are the different types?

Fats are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. We need some fat in our diets to help us absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats are also a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself.

However, too much fat in our diet can be bad for our health. All types of fat are high in calories and provide 9 calories per gram, more energy per gram compared to protein and carbohydrate, which contain around 4 calories per gram, or alcohol (around 7kcal per gram). Eating a lot of fatty foods can make it easy to consume more calories than we need, and over time, this can lead to weight gain.

Fats in foods can either be saturated or unsaturated depending on their chemical structure. Most foods that contain fat contain a mixture of both saturated and unsaturated fats in different proportions, but we would normally describe a food as being high in saturated or unsaturated fat depending on which type they are a richer source of.

Although there is a lot of debate about the health effects of fats in the diet, we have many studies that show that replacing saturated with unsaturated fats in the diet can help reduce our blood cholesterol. This is important because high cholesterol is one of the risk factors of heart disease – so it is good to be aware of the balance of your saturated and unsaturated fat intake.  Obesity is also a risk factor for heart disease, so weight management is important, and we need to be aware of the quantity of total fat in our diet. For a healthy diet, it is important to get most of our fats as unsaturated fats from sources like rapeseed or olive oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish.

Saturated fats

Knowing the kinds of foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat – and those that do not – is a good way to make choices when it comes to planning a healthy diet. While it’s not possible or necessary to eliminate saturated fat from your diet completely you will be able to make informed decisions as you shop and prepare meals.

Foods that are high in saturated fats include:

  • Fatty cuts of meat and processed meat products like bacon, sausages and salami
  • Cheese, especially hard cheese like Cheddar
  • Cream, crème fraiche and soured cream
  • Butter, ghee, suet, lard
  • Coconut oil and palm oil
  • Coconut milk and cream
  • Ice cream
  • Cakes, biscuits and pastries, like pies, sausage rolls and croissants
  • Savoury cheese flavoured crackers or twists
  • Chocolate and chocolate spreads

It is best not to eat too many foods high in saturated fat. This is because too much saturated fat in our diet can raise cholesterol in our blood, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. When it comes to fats like butter or coconut oil it is best to replace these with unsaturated types like vegetable or olive oils or spreads.

Unsaturated fats

Replacing saturated fats in our diet with unsaturated fats can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. As part of a healthy, balanced diet, it is best to choose foods that contain higher amounts of unsaturated fat and less saturated fat to reduce your risk of heart disease.

There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats

Replacing saturated fats in our diet with monounsaturated fats can help to decrease levels of total cholesterol and harmful LDL-cholesterol.

Monounsaturated fats are found in:

  • olive and rapeseed oils and spreads made from them
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pine nuts and sesame seeds and spreads or pastes made from them (like nut butter or tahini). The fat content of different types of nuts is shown in table 1 on the right.

These foods are typical of the Mediterranean-style diet, which is associated with good heart health and a lower risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats

Replacing saturated fats in our diet with polyunsaturated fats can also help to lower ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6. 

Polyunsaturated fats are found in:

  • Some vegetable oils and spreads made from them (g. corn, sunflower and sesame)
  • Flaxseeds, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds
  • Walnuts, pine nuts
  • Oily fish (g. mackerel, salmon, trout, herring and sardines)

Omega-6 fats

One type of omega-6 fat called linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, which means that our bodies cannot make it from other fats and so we must get it from our diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetables oils (e.g., rapeseed, corn, sunflower) and some nuts. In the UK we typically get enough omega-6 in our diet.

Omega-3 fats

The most important omega-3 fatty acids are the long chain omega-3 fats like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which may help lower our risk of heart disease, and also contribute to normal visual and brain development in babies during pregnancy. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout are rich sources of long chain omega 3 fatty acids. Healthy eating guidelines in the UK advise we eat two portions of fish (2 x 140g) a week, one which should be an oily type.  However, we know that UK intake of oily fish is far lower than the recommended amount. Long chain omega 3 fats are also found in eggs and, in smaller amounts in meat.

You can also get omega-3 fatty acids from certain plant foods. Examples of plant food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: 

  • Some seeds (such as flax and chia seeds)
  • Oils (such as flaxseed, rapeseed)
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Soybeans and soybean oil

However, these are a short chain omega-3 fatty acid known as α-linolenic acid (ALA).  The body can convert short chain ALA to the long chain omega-3 fatty acids but the efficiency of this process is unclear.

 Supplements containing long-chain forms of omega-3 fats (e.g., EPA and DHA) from microalgae are also available that are suitable for vegans. Although vegans and vegetarians have lower intakes of long-chain omega 3 fats than people who eat fish, there is no strong evidence that vegans or vegetarians have poorer health as a result.

How much fat should we eat, and how much fat are we currently eating in the UK?

The government recommends that total fat intake should not exceed 35% of our total daily calories. On average in the UK we are achieving this. Our saturated fat intake should not exceed 11% of total energy intake from food, which is roughly 30 g per day for men and 20 g per day for women.

Health concerns around fats

 

Does fat in the diet make you put on weight?

Foods that are high in fat are also ‘energy dense’, that is, they have a high number of calories per gram. High fat foods can also be very palatable (i.e. they taste good!) and both these factors can make it easy to eat a lot of calories from these foods. If we eat more calories than we need then, over time, this will lead to weight gain.

Table 2. UK dietary fat recommendations and intakes in the UK.

 

Dietary recommendation

Current average intake in UK adults

Total fat

No more than 35% total energy

34.4% in men

35% in women

Saturates

No more than 11% total energy

12.3% in men

12.7% in women

However, weight gain can be a result of excess calories from any source in the diet. Some dietary patterns that are relatively high in fat such as the Mediterranean diet are associated with health benefits – in this case the fat in the diet is mainly unsaturated and coming from foods such aps nuts, oily fish and olive oil. The most important thing is to have a healthy dietary pattern overall with the majority of fat in the diet coming from unsaturated sources.

Low fat weight loss diets have been used for many years and can be effective for some people. Studies comparing different weight loss diets in the longer term (6-12 months) have found that there is no one diet that is the ‘best’ for weight loss, and this is probably down to different things working for different people. If you do want to reduce the amount of fat in your diet overall then you can do so by limiting high fat foods such as deep fried chips, pastries, cakes and biscuits, reducing the fat you use when cooking and by choosing reduced fat products such as low fat yogurt or fat spread.

I’ve read that saturated fat isn’t bad for my heart anymore – is it true?

Some headlines in recent years have suggested that saturated fat may not be strongly associated with heart disease, but it is important to remember that these headlines do not match up with current scientific understanding based on looking at all the evidence.

Since the 1980s, dietary guidelines in the UK have recommended limiting saturated fat because studies have shown that the kind of saturated fats we typically eat in our diet increase LDL-cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease.  

But what we replace saturated fat with in our diet is important – good evidence shows that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats in the diet reduces blood cholesterol and lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke. We also need to remember that saturated fat is just one part of our overall diet, and we need to pay attention to what foods we include in the overall diet, for example wholegrains and fruit and vegetables and other high fibre foods, since consuming high amounts of these foods is associated with reduced risk of heart disease.

Risk of heart disease is also dependent on other factors like smoking, alcohol intake, weight status and physical activity levels. Therefore, overall diet and lifestyle, not just the amount of saturated fat we consume, is important.

Making better choices with the fats in our diets

There are some ways that we can reduce our intake of saturated fats and replace with small amounts of unsaturated fats as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Eat foods high in saturated fat less often (and in smaller amounts)

The UK Eatwell Guide encourages us to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Foods high in fat and saturated fat such as pastries, biscuits, cakes, ice cream and chocolate are placed in a group outside of the main food groups, along with foods high in salt and/or sugars. These foods tend to be high in calories, if they are included in the diet they should only be eaten less often and in smaller amounts.

 

Make some simple swaps

Make some small changes to the foods and drinks you include in your diet to save on saturated fat.

Swap…

For…

By…

Whole milk

Lower fat milks e.g. semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk

Using lower fat milks in tea and coffee and on breakfast cereal.

Cream

Plain yogurt or lower fat fromage frais

Add yogurt to fruit or use lower fat fromage frais in a sauce

Fatty cuts of meat, processed meat products (e.g. sausages, bacon, burgers)

Lean cuts of meat, lean mince, chicken without skin, fish (especially oily fish such as trout, salmon or mackerel)

Trimming visible fat off meat before cooking.

Replace some or all of minced meat in cooking with beans or pulses (e.g. lentils).

 

Foods roasted and fried in fat

Foods that have been grilled, steamed, boiled, poached or baked (without fat)

Grill meat or fish instead of roasting or frying.

Steam, boil or bake potatoes and vegetables.

Poach eggs instead of frying them.

If you do roast or fry foods, add minimal fat and choose an unsaturated fat or oil to cook with (e.g., olive, rapeseed or sunflower oil).

Butter, lard, ghee, coconut and palm oils

Oils rich in unsaturated fatty acids such as olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils and spreads made with these. If you want to include these foods in your diet, do so in small amounts.

Cook with olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils.

Use unsaturated fat spreads instead of butter on bread, toast and in cooking.

Pastries and croissants at breakfast

Plain wholegrain breakfast cerea or wholegrain or wholemeal toast

Top wholegrain breakfast cereal with chopped fruit, and use lower-fat unsaturated spread on wholegrain or wholemeal toast

Creamy salad dressings

Non-creamy salad dressings (e.g. vinaigrette)

Make your own salad dressings from ingredients like balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, a dash of olive oil and herbs.

 

[OILS AND SPREADS EATWELL GUIDE VIDEO https://youtu.be/LMZaLYA_zQM]

Check out the Choose your fats wisely guide for more tips on choosing the best oils for cooking and flavouring your food.

How can I tell if a food is high in fat or saturated fat?

Food labels on the front of packs can be a useful tool to help us identify whether foods are high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt (see example shown right). Generally, it’s a good idea to choose foods with mostly ambers or greens most of the time, in the context of a healthy, balanced diet. Some foods such as oily fish or nuts that are naturally high in fat may be labelled as ‘red’ for fat or saturated fat, but these are still healthy foods to include in the diet.

The label may also show the percentage (%) that a portion of the food or drink contributes to your daily Reference Intake (RI). This is the maximum amount that adults should have each day (see below) and is not intended as a target that needs to be met.

 

Reference Intake

Males

Females

Total fat

95g

70g

Saturates

30g

20g

Figures based on typical adult female

Food packaging can also show claims such as ‘low fat’, ‘fat free’, ‘low in saturated fat’, ‘lower fat’ or ‘reduced fat’. Remember that foods that are lower in fat or reduced fat are not necessarily low in fat overall. For example, if the type of food is usually high in fat (e.g., mayonnaise), the lower or reduced fat version may still be a high-fat food (e.g. reduced fat mayonnaise contains less fat than standard mayonnaise but still has a red traffic light for total fat).

For more information on food labels see [Labelling pages]

Is coconut oil good for me?

Coconut oil has become popular as a cooking ingredient, but it is very high in saturated fat – it actually contains more than butter! Therefore, coconut oil should be consumed less often and in small amounts. Read our FAQs on coconut oil [TO ADD] to find out more about this food.

What about cholesterol in foods?

In the past, it was thought that eating foods containing cholesterol (for example eggs, liver, kidney and shellfish such as prawns and crab) would raise our blood cholesterol. However, the amount of saturated fat in the diet has much more of an impact on blood cholesterol levels than cholesterol in foods. So, there is no need to avoid or minimise these foods with respect to your cholesterol unless you have been advised otherwise by a health professional.

Are dairy foods bad for my heart?

Although most of the fat in dairy foods is saturated fat, more evidence is emerging that dairy foods may actually reduce the risk of heart disease. This may be because saturated fat in full-fat dairy foods such as whole milk and whole yogurt appears to be less harmful to health than that present in other foods (e.g., butter, coconut oil and palm oil) due to the unique chemical structure and other nutrients present within milk, cheese and yogurt, collectively known as the ‘food matrix.’ Dairy foods can form an important part of a healthy balanced diet, as they are important providers of protein, calcium and other minerals such as iodine. However, it is still recommended that we choose lower fat versions of dairy foods most of the time, such as semi-skimmed, skimmed or 1% fat milk, reduced or lower fat cheeses (cottage cheese or quark) and lower fat yogurts as these provide the important nutrients with fewer calories. Because many UK adults are overweight or obese, lower fat dairy can be important for weight control.

 

I’ve heard oily fish is good for me but I don’t eat it – should I take fish oil supplements?

A review of the health benefits of taking fish oil or omega 3 supplements found that they did not have an effect, although there was some evidence of a slight reduction in coronary events or death (those caused by illness of the arteries that supply the heart) and that DHA and EPA may reduce triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood.

Oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel and trout) is the best source of the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, which are associated with heart health benefits, because it also provides important nutrients such as protein and minerals. It is recommended that we aim to consume at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish. If you don’t like or don’t eat oily fish, you can get omega-3 fats from other plant foods (see above). However, these are shorter chain omega-3 fats, such as ALA, and only a small amount can be converted in the body into the long-chain omega-3 forms - the type that is thought to be most beneficial for health. Although vegans and vegetarians have lower intakes of long-chain omega 3 fats than people who eat fish, there is no strong evidence that they have poorer health as a result.

If you do choose to take a supplement, go for a fish oil or an omega-3 oil (rather than fish or cod liver oil) that provides about 450 mg EPA and DHA per daily dose. Take care with vitamin A – if your omega-3 oil supplement contains vitamin A you should not have more than a total of 1.5 mg (1500 mcg) of vitamin A a day from both food and supplements together. If you are pregnant, trying for a baby or breastfeeding, avoid any supplements containing vitamin A (also called retinol). You can also get supplements suitable for vegans containing long-chain omega-3s from microalgae.

 

Resources [TO ADD]:

  • Choose your fats wisely
  • Coconut oil FAQ
  • Oils and Spreads PDF resource and video

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