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Fat - the facts

We all need some fat in our diet. But too much of a particular kind of fat – saturated fat – can raise our cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. It's important to cut down on fat and choose foods that contain unsaturated fat.

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

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 as well as some vitamins (such as vitamins A and D), and provides essential fatty acids that the body can’t make itself.

There are two main types of fat found in food: saturated and unsaturated. But which fats should we be eating more of?

Fats to cut down on

As part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on food that is high in saturated fat.

Saturated fat

Most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat: about 20% more than the recommended maximum, according to the British Dietetic Association.

  • 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.

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

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 (kJ/kcal) we get from our diet. For adults, this is no more than about 5g a day.

However, 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.

Fats we can eat more of (unsaturated fats)

Remember, we don't need to cut down on every type of fat. Some fats are not only good for us, most people should be eating more of them.

Unsaturated fats

Eating unsaturated fats instead of saturated can help lower blood cholesterol. Unsaturated fat, such as omega-3 essential fatty acids, is found in: 

  • oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • nuts and seeds
  • sunflower and olive oils

Unsaturated fats are also found in fruit and vegetables, such as avocados.

Tips on eating less fat

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

  • Compare nutrition labels when shopping, 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 or 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.

Get more practical tips on eating less saturated fat.

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. These labels include information on fat and saturates (saturated fat). All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

Some packaging also displays nutrition labels on the front, which give at-a-glance information on specific nutrients. These labels may contain information on reference intakes (RIs) or colour-coded nutrition information to help you make healthier choices. 

When colour-coding is used on food labels, red means 'high'. Leave red foods or 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 17.5g of fat per 100g. May be colour-coded red.
  • Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g. May be colour-coded green.

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 be colour-coded red.
  • Low: 1.5g saturates or less per 100g. May be colour-coded green.

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' or 'reduced 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, these foods 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, energy content.

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

Content Supplied by NHS Choices