Expert reviewer, Dr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due March 2024

Fats are an important part of your diet. They’re a good source of energy and are essential for good health. But if you eat too much of some kinds of fat, it can be unhealthy so it’s important to find a healthy balance in the fats you eat.

Peanut butter on toast

Why do I need to eat fat?

Fats are an important part of your diet – there are some important reasons why you should eat fat.

  • Your body needs some fat to absorb certain vitamins in food that are important for your health – such as vitamins A and D.
  • Your body uses some fats to make the outer layer (membrane) of your body’s cells, and some to make hormones and other important chemicals in the body.
  • Some fats that have vital functions in your body have to come from your diet because your body can’t make them. These are essential fatty acids and include omega-3. They’re important because they can help to keep your heart healthy.
  • Fat is a good energy source – it gives you more than twice the energy as the same amount of protein or carbohydrate. But this means you need to be careful about how much of it you eat. If you eat too much fat, you’ll probably put on weight. Being overweight or obese is associated with some serious long-term health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
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Types of fat

There are three different types of fat and each of these can have a different effect on your health.

An infographic showing the different types of fats 

You can click on the image to open a larger version of the 'Understand the different fats' infographic.

Saturated fat

Saturated fat is usually (but not always) solid at room temperature and comes from animal sources, such as dairy or meat. If you eat too much saturated fat, it can be bad for you as it may increase your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Saturated fat is in fatty and processed foods including:

  • meats, such as sausages
  • full-fat dairy products, butter, ghee and lard
  • pastries, cakes and biscuits
  • palm oil and coconut oil

Trans fat

Trans fats are in processed foods such as:

  • fried fast food
  • cake
  • biscuits

If you eat too much trans fat, you may increase your risk of heart disease. A good way to reduce the amount of trans fats in your diet is to eat less takeaways and processed food. Try to cook from scratch using fresh ingredients when you can.

Unsaturated fats

Most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are usually vegetable fats. These are a healthier choice:

  • monounsaturated fats (for example, olive oil, rapeseed oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado)
  • polyunsaturated fats (for example, sunflower oil and vegetable oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and oily fish)

Getting the right amounts of fat

It’s important not to eat too much fat and to eat the right types of fat for two main reasons.

How much fat should I eat?

Most people in the UK eat more than the recommended amount of fat. But, according to guidelines:

  • men should have no more than 95g of fat (of which 30g is saturated fat) per day
  • woman should have no more than 70g of fat (of which 20g is saturated fat) per day

Only about a third of this can be saturated fat – the rest should be unsaturated fat. See ‘Types of fat’ for examples of each.

The type of fat matters

The type of fat you eat, and how much, affects the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

If you eat a lot of saturated fat or trans fat, it will increase the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. This may increase your chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Unsaturated fats may lower the level of bad cholesterol and increase the amount of good (HDL) cholesterol in your blood. This may help to protect you from heart disease and stroke.

So, choose to eat foods with less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat as it’s better for your health.

Food labels can help

You can see how much fat you eat by checking the labels on the foods you eat. The amount of total fat in the food is listed, along with the amount of saturated fat. Foods that have less than 3g of fat per 100g of food are low-fat foods. Foods with less than 1.5g of saturated fat per 100g of food are considered low in saturated fat.

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 calories in foods. If a food is low in fat or saturated fat, it is green.

Low-fat tips

Try these tips to get the right amount and balance of fats in your diet.

  • Aim to eat foods low in saturated fat. Choose lean meat or alternatives to meat, such as beans, tofu or lentils. If you do have fatty meat, cut off any fat you can see. Use lower-fat dairy products such as skimmed milk and reduced-fat cheese. Or eat smaller portions of the regular versions.
  • 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.
  • If you eat fish, eat two portions each week, including at least one oily fish, such as mackerel or salmon. This will help you get enough omega-3, a type of fat that’s important for good health. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, other sources include nuts and seeds, soya and green leafy vegetables.
  • If you need a snack, choose a handful of unsalted nuts, rather than biscuits or crisps.

You can get lots of tips and hints on eating a healthy balance of fats from the organisations listed below under ‘Other helpful websites’.

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Related information

    • Macronutrients and energy balance. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics. Oxford Medicine Online., published April 2020
    • Saturated fats and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition., published July 2019
    • Fat facts: food fact sheet. British Dietetic Association., published January 2018
    • Obesity: identification, assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)., published 27 November 2014
    • Fat. British Nutrition Foundation., accessed 1 February 2021
    • Fats explained. British Heart Foundation., accessed 18 January 2021
    • Fats explained. British Nutrition Foundation., last reviewed October 2017
    • Hypercholesterolaemia. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 15 December 2020
    • Building on the success of front-of-pack nutrition labelling in the UK: a public consultation. GOV.UK., published 30 July 2020
    • Cholesterol: food fact sheet. British Dietetic Association., updated December 2018
    • Foods and drinks high in fat, salt and sugars. British Nutrition Foundation., updated July 2018
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, March 2021
    Expert reviewer, Dr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due March 2024