Your body needs some fat to absorb certain vitamins that are important for your health – such as vitamins A and D. Some fats have vital functions in your body, and you have to get them from your diet because your body can’t make them. These are called essential fatty acids and include omega-3. They’re important because they can help to keep your heart healthy.
It’s because fat is such a good source of energy that you need to be careful about how much of it you eat. If you eat too much fat, your body can’t use it quickly enough and stores it as fat. This can make you put on weight. Being overweight or obese increases the likelihood of developing some serious long-term conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. So it’s important to get the right amount of the right kinds of fat to stay healthy.
Making sure you get the right amount of fat, and eating the right types of fat, is important for two main reasons. It can help you to maintain a healthy weight, and it can lower your risk of developing diseases like type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
Eating a lot of saturated fat is likely to increase the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood. This is then thought to increase your likelihood of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Like saturated fat, trans fats can increase the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood, which increases the risk of developing heart disease or stroke.
It’s thought that unsaturated fats can increase the amount of good cholesterol in your blood (HDL cholesterol), which may help to protect you from heart disease and stroke. Choosing foods that contain less saturated fat and larger amounts of unsaturated fat is better for your health.
The current guidelines in the UK are that men should have no more than 30g of saturated fat and woman no more than 20g of saturated fat a day. It’s recommended to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats where you can.
A 30g portion of cheddar cheese has about 7g saturated fat in it, a beef burger and a croissant both have about 11g. So, it can be easy to reach your daily limits in just one or two meals.
You can see how much fat you’re eating by checking the labels on the foods you eat. The amount of total fat in the food will be listed, along with the amount of saturated fat. Foods that have less than 3g of fat per 100g of food, and less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g of food are low-fat foods.
Many companies now use a colour-coding system using traffic light colours (red, amber and green) to show the amount of fat, sugar, salt and carbohydrate in a food. The foods with the lowest amount of fat are those with a green colour next to the listing for fat and saturated fat.
Try these tips to get the right amount and balance of fats in your diet.
- Opt for foods low in saturated fat when you can. Choose lean meat or alternatives to meat, such as beans, tofu or lentils. And if you do have fatty meat, cut off any fat you can see. Choosing low-fat dairy products such as skimmed milk and reduced-fat cheese can also help you to cut down on fat.
- Eat only small amounts of foods that are high in saturated fats, such as processed meats and full-fat cheese.
- Choose low-fat ways of cooking, such as grilling, steaming or baking foods.
- When you do cook with fat, use an unsaturated fat, such as olive oil, sunflower oil or rapeseed oil.
- Eat only small amounts of foods that may contain trans fats, such as bought cakes, biscuits and pastries.
- Eat two portions of fish each week, including at least one oily fish, such as mackerel or salmon.
- Snack on a handful of unsalted nuts, rather than cakes and biscuits.
- Fat. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published January 2015
- Good fats and bad fats. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published December 2013
- Weight management: lifestyle services for overweight or obese adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2014. www.nice.org.uk
- Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition: Report of an expert consultation. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Chapter 2. www.fao.org, published 2010
- Overview of nutrition. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, published November 2013
- Hypercholesterolaemia. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated January 2016
- Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Monounsaturated fatty acids and risk of cardiovascular disease: synopsis of the evidence available from systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Nutrients 2012; 4:1989–2007. doi:10.3390/nu4121989
- Delgado-Lista J, Perez-Martinez P, Lopez-Miranda J, et al. Long chain omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review. Br J Nutr 2012; 107(s2):S201–S213
- Healthy diet. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published January 2015
- Healthy living. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
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Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Bupa Health Content Team, April 2016.
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