The Ultimate Guide To Understanding Dietary Fats
How much fat are we eating?
As a nation we are eating less fat overall, however the balance of fats is not quite right. Currently, saturated fatty acids provide ~13.3% of food energy for UK adults & the recommended amount is 11%. Eating high amounts of saturated fat & consuming more energy than we burn off through physical activity, can lead to development of diet-related illnesses e.g. cardiovascular (heart) disease (CVD), diabetes & some cancers. We need to replace some saturated fat with healthier unsaturated fats. This is important as high intake of saturated fat may increase blood cholesterol, which increases CVD risk which is currently the UK’s biggest killer . The British Heart Foundation estimated 180,000 people died from CVD in 2010. 
Why do we need fats?
Fats are an essential part of our diet as they provide a source of energy and important fat soluble vitamins, for example, vitamins A & D. Unsaturated fats are also essential for a healthy heart.
Types of fat:
The 3 main types of fat are: saturated, monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats. Most foods contain a combination of these 3 fats.
Lard, butter, fat on meat & found in cakes, biscuits & takeaways, can increase our levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which increases our risk of heart disease. However, we do need some saturated fat, for example it is an important component of our cellular membranes, so cut down rather than cut out. It’s ok to cook with a little coconut oil, butter or ghee & to enjoy lean cuts of red meat 1/2 times per week with plenty of vegetables. A slice of cake or a biscuit is ok once in a while too!
Trans Fats (Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils)
Are vegetable oils processed to make them hard & are not beneficial to heart health.They are to be avoided and are found in some processed foods e.g. cakes, pastries, biscuits & deep fried food. On the ingredients list you may see: ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’. Trans fats do occur naturally in small amounts in dairy foods and meat, however industrially produced trans fats can increase unhealthy blood cholesterol levels and increase heart disease risk.
Monounsaturated fats/oils (MUFA)
Tend to be from plant sources e.g. Olive oil. MUFAs are also found in nuts e.g. Unsalted almonds/ walnuts; and avocados. Research consistently suggests a Mediterranean type diet, which typically involves consumption of olive oil and other sources of MUFA is particularly beneficial to heart health.² This type of fat helps promote the healthier type of cholesterol (HDL), and maintain healthy cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA)
e.g. Omega 3 fats found in oily fish. Plant sources are less concentrated and include rapeseed, soya, flax, linseed oils & walnuts. Omega 3s are ‘essential’ PUFAs as they cannot be made in the body in sufficient amounts. These fats are vital for a healthy heart as they help stop blood clotting, promote a healthy heartbeat and greatly improve survival in heart attack survivors. Omega 3’s help promote healthy cholesterol levels thus reducing the risk of heart disease & may also help reduce inflammation in the body.
How much oily fish are you eating?
Most people eat very little oily fish – on average 0.3 portions per week, with 70% of adults eating no oily fish at all! The Department of Health & Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition advise us to consume 2 portions of fish per week, 1 of which should be oily eg. Salmon, sardines, mackerel or trout.
5 ways to replace some saturated fat with healthier fats:
#1 Slice half an avocado instead of mayo or full fat-cheese on your lunch.
#2 Use a little olive oil & balsamic vinegar instead of creamy salad dressings.
#3 Keep tins of sardines/mackerel in tomato sauce instead of ready meals for a quick option.
#4 Choose grilled, steamed, boiled, poached or baked options rather than fried.
#5 Replace one unhealthy snack e.g. Bag of crisps or pastry with a healthy one each day eg. apple & 6-8 unsalted nuts eg. Almonds/walnuts; olives; or low sugar nut butters on an oatcake.
Should I choose ‘fat-free’ or ‘low-fat options? No!
‘Low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ diet foods are not as healthy as you might think. The fat is often replaced by sugar & chemicals, so check the label. For example, low fat yoghurts tend to be very high in sugar & excess sugar is converted to fat. One exception is Total Greek Yoghurt 0% Fat, which is not high in sugar. However, if you can’t find this & for other foods it’s best to eat the real unprocessed foods and be sensible with portion sizes eg. a small amount of normal Greek yoghurt with cinnamon/ unsweetened cocoa powder to taste.
Fat forms an important part of our diets. Replace some (but not all) of the saturated fat in your diet with healthier unsaturated fats eg. Found in nuts, oilve oil and oily fish, to help promote a healthy heart.
Sensible moderation is the key – a slice of cake or a biscuit is ok, just eat well the majority of the time. Keep it simple and base your meals around real unprocessed food. Choose lean cuts of protein e.g. Chicken & fish, accompanied by vegetables, healthy fats and complex carbs (sweet potatoes/brown rice). Cut down on processed foods and do eat lean cuts of red meat 1/2 times per week with lots of vegetables.
Claire Thornton MSc ANutr
Follow me on Twitter @claire_emma1
www.glownutrition.org “Eat and Live Simply For Health”
- Townsend N., Wickramasinghe K., Bhatnagar P. et al. (2012). Coronary heart disease statistics 2012 edition. British Heart Foundation: London.
- 2. Sofi F., Abbate R., Gensini G.F., Casini A. (2010). Accruing evidence in benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet on health: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92, 1189-1196.