Fat: the facts

We all need some fat in our diet. But eating too much fat makes us more likely to become overweight. What’s more, too much of a particular kind of fat – saturated fat – can raise our cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. That’s why it’s important to cut down on fat, and choose foods that contain unsaturated fat.

Eating too much fat can make us more likely to put on weight, because foods that are high in fat are also high in energy (calories). Being overweight raises our risk of serious health problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

But this doesn’t mean that all fat is bad. We need some fat in our diet because it helps the body absorb certain nutrients. Fat is a source of energy, and provides essential fatty acids that the body can’t make itself.

For most of us, it’s good to cut the total amount of fat in our diet. But we also need to think about the type of fat we’re eating.

Eat less fat

Tips for cutting back on fat

Nutrition labels on food packaging can help you to reduce the amount of fat you eat:

• High fat foods: more than 20g of total fat per 100g
• Low fat foods: less than 3g of total fat per 100g

These tips can help you cut the total amount of fat in your diet:

  • When shopping, compare nutrition labels so you can pick foods lower in fat. Use the per serving or per 100g information to compare different foods. Remember, servings may vary, so read the label carefully.
  • Ask your butcher for lean cuts of meat, or compare nutrition labels on meat packaging.
  • Choose lower-fat dairy products, such as 1% fat milk, lower fat cheese.
  • Grill, bake, poach or steam food rather than frying or roasting, so that you won’t need to add any extra fat.
  • Measure oil with tablespoons rather than pouring it straight from a container: this will help you use less.
  • Trim visible fat and take skin off meat before cooking. Use the grill instead of the frying pan, whatever meat you’re cooking.
  • Put more vegetables or beans in casseroles, stews and curries, and a bit less meat. And skim the fat off the top before serving.
  • When making sandwiches, try leaving out the butter or spread: you might not need it if you’re using a moist filling. When you do use spread, go for a reduced-fat variety and choose one that is soft straight from the fridge, so it’s easier to spread thinly.

You can find practical tips on eating less saturated fat in the video Cut saturated fat.

Types of fat

There are two main types of fat found in food: saturated and unsaturated.

Saturated and unsaturated fat contain the same amount of calories. But as part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat, and instead eat foods that are rich in unsaturated fat.

Saturated fat
Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat: about 20% more than the recommended maximum.

  • The average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day.
  • The average woman should eat no more than 20g of saturated fat a day.

Eating a diet high in saturated fat can cause the level of cholesterol in your blood to build up over time. Raised cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease.

That’s why, as well as cutting down on the total amount of fat we eat, it’s important to cut down on saturated fat.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • fatty cuts of meat
  • meat products, including sausages and pies
  • butter, ghee and lard
  • cheese, especially hard cheese
  • cream, soured cream and ice cream
  • some savoury snacks and chocolate confectionery
  • biscuits, cakes and pastries

There are practical tips on cutting down on saturated fat in Cut saturated fat.

Unsaturated fat
Having unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat can help lower blood cholesterol.

Unsaturated fat is found in:

  • oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna and mackerel
  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds
  • sunflower and olive oils

Trans fats
Trans fats are found naturally at low levels in some foods, such as those from animals, including meat and dairy products. They can also be found in foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Hydrogenated vegetable oils may contain trans fats. If a food contains hydrogenated vegetable oil then this must be declared on the ingredients list.

Like saturated fats, trans fats can raise cholesterol levels in the blood. This is why it’s recommended that trans fats should make up no more than 2% of the energy (calories) we get from our diet. For adults, this is no more than about 5g a day.

Most people in the UK don’t eat a lot of trans fats. On average, we eat about half the recommended maximum. Most of the supermarkets in the UK have removed hydrogenated vegetable oil from all their own-brand products.

We eat a lot more saturated fats than trans fats. This means that when looking at the amount of fat in your diet, it’s more important to focus on reducing the amount of saturated fat.

Check nutrition labels

The nutrition labels on food packaging can help you to cut down on total fat and saturated fat.

Labels containing nutrition information are usually on the back of food packaging. This label will often tell you how much fat and saturated fat is contained in 100g of the food, and sometimes the amount per portion or per serving.

Some packaging also displays nutrition labels on the front, which give at-a-glance information on specific nutrients. These labels may contain information on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) and/or traffic light colour coding to help you make healthier choices.

When traffic lights are used, red means ‘high’. Leave red foods for the occasional treat, and aim to eat mainly foods that are green or amber.

Total fat
So what counts as high-fat and low-fat?

  • High: more than 20g of fat per 100g. May display a red traffic light.
  • Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g. May display a green traffic light.

Saturated fat
Look out for “saturates” or “sat fat” on the label: this tells you how much saturated fat is in the food.

  • High: more than 5g saturates per 100g. May display a red traffic light.
  • Low: 1.5g saturates or less per 100g. May display a green traffic light.

If the amount of fat or saturated fat per 100g is in between these figures, that’s a medium level, and may be colour coded amber.

What “lower fat” really means
Just because a food packet contains the words “lower fat” or “reduced fat” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthy choice.

The lower-fat claim simply means that the food is 30% lower in fat than the standard equivalent. So if the type of food in question is high in fat in the first place, the lower-fat version may also still be high in fat.

For example, a lower-fat mayonnaise is 30% lower in fat than the standard version, but is still high in fat.

Also, foods that are marked “lower fat” or “reduced fat” aren’t necessarily low in calories. Often the fat is replaced with sugar, and the food may end up with the same, or an even higher, calorie content.

To be sure of the fat content and the calorie content, remember to check the nutrition label on the packet.

Find out more about nutrition labels and how they can help you choose between products.

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