FAT. Public enemy No.1?

When it comes to healthy eating, fat has always been painted as the bad guy and something to be avoided at all costs. But not all fats are the same – some are actually good for you. Confused? Julie Willis separates the fact from the fiction.

FAT. Public enemy No.1?

It’s no exaggeration to say that, in recent years, fat has become public health enemy number one – blamed for clogging arteries, raising cholesterol and expanding our waists. Does it deserve such bad press?

“Fat has been demonised and become the villain of our diets when in reality it is an essential component,” says Dr Sarah Berry, a lecturer in dietary fat and cardiovascular disease at King’s College, London. “People thought low-fat was good, so no-fat must be better, but that’s not true.”

No wonder there’s confusion about how much and what type of fat is healthy (or otherwise). A recent survey of 1,000 people carried out by

The Fat Panel

, an independent group of experts, found one in 10 people didn’t realise they need fat in their diets, and one in five thought saturated fat (the worst kind) was a healthy option. So here’s our guide to help you separate the fat fact from the fat fiction.

Why we need fat

It’s not the case that all dietary fat is a no-no. “Fat in the right amount is a key part of a healthy balanced diet,” says dietician Sian Porter. “It provides essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), which our bodies can’t make themselves; helps us to absorb the important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; and generally plays a part in maintaining healthy tissue, skin and immune function,” she says. Fat also adds flavour and texture to food. So far, so good. However, what’s really important is that you choose the right kind of fat.

Know what you’re eating

It’s important not to be too prescriptive about this – there’s nothing wrong with the occasional meal that’s high in fat. The main thing is to balance it with healthier options and to understand what you’re eating. In the less healthy corner are saturated fats. Firm at room temperature, they’re found mostly in food from animals: lard; fatty or processed meat; and dairy products such as butter, ghee, cream and cheese. They’re also found in coconut and palm oil, and lurk in various forms in confectionery, cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies, as well as in many takeaways and ready meals. Too much sat fat can raise cholesterol, a proven risk factor for heart disease.

Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are the good guys. They are usually liquid at room temperature and come from plant sources: seeds, nuts, vegetables such as olives and avocados, and the oils and spreads made from them. Oily fish are another excellent source (though all these foods also contain a small amount of saturated fat, too). Unsaturated fats don’t raise cholesterol levels and are good for keeping your heart and circulation healthy.

Get the balance right

The good news is that most of us are on target when it comes to the total amount of fat in our diet, keeping it to less than 35% of our daily calories. But it’s recommended that sat fat should account for less than 11% which works out as 20g a day for women and 30g for men (easy to hit when a Danish pastry has around 6.2g, a four-finger Kit Kat 8.3g and a cheese sandwich with white bread and butter 18g).

The figures suggest we’re eating 20% more saturated fat than we should be. “We are consuming too much saturated fat and not enough unsaturated. And it’s this balance that’s vital,” says Dr Sarah Berry.  A diet that gets the balance right is the Mediterranean diet, which with all its proven heart-health benefits actually contains similar amounts of total fat to a typical UK diet. However, it’s much higher in unsaturated fats and lower in saturated. Sarah’s advice is simple: “In a balanced diet, it’s the type of fat we’re eating that we need to think about, not the total amount.”

Switching fats

Simple changes to how you shop, cook and eat can all help get the balance of good and bad fat right.

When shopping

It’s worth checking labels of foods such as ready meals, pies and biscuits that are high in saturated fat. Compare similar foods carefully, because the amount of fat in different brands can vary hugely. Check the label and choose the foods that are lower in saturated fat. Five grams or more of saturated fat per 100g of food is considered high, 1.5g or less per 100g is low. Food between those two figures is medium. Go for lower and medium options as often as you can.

When cooking

Use vegetable oil such as sunflower or rapeseed for everyday cooking and use butter as a treat for when you can really taste it. Grill, steam or poach rather than fry. On average, a portion of cod fried in batter has 2.9g saturated fat, while a portion of baked cod has just 0.4g. If you’re concerned about your fat intake, trim off visible fat, remove chicken skin and buy good quality non-stick pans or non-stick foil so you don’t need to add oil. Use an oil spray for roast potatoes, and roast meat in a tin with a rack, so the fat can drain off.

When eating out

If you’re having an Indian meal, go for dry dishes or kebabs, or tomato-based dishes rather than creamy curries, and opt for plain rice and chapati instead of pilau rice and a naan. If you’re eating Thai or Chinese food, choose stir-fried or steamed dishes with chicken, fish or vegetables and watch out for anything deep-fried and for curries containing coconut milk. 

What about trans fats?

These are chemically altered vegetable oils that increase the shelf life of food. They’re found in processed foods including sweets, biscuits and ready meals. Trans fats have been linked to high cholesterol and the NHS has called for them to be banned, but some experts believe they’re no longer a concern. “Food companies have been voluntarily removing them and they’re no longer a noteworthy health issue in the UK,” says Dr Sarah Berry. 

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