You may have seen stories in the media recently on fats in our diet; saturated, unsaturated and trans to be precise - with studies offering new information on what we can and can’t eat and how much is ok.
One newspaper even said that perhaps people should take health warnings with a pinch of salt as there are so many studies and so much conflicting information out there.
It’s true that mixed messages can be confusing which is why I want to offer some clarity on what the official recommendations are. These have remained in place for some time and are based on evidence.
The official UK recommendation for overall consumption of all fats is no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake. Within this, saturated fats should form no more than 11% and trans fat no more than 2% of your daily calories. Unsaturated fats should replace some of the saturated fats in our diets to reduce the risk of heart disease.
As a nation we are meeting the overall fat and trans fat advice but exceeding the saturated fat recommendation which ultimately has a negative impact on our health.
Saturated fat is mainly found in animal sources of food, so meat and dairy products. Foods such as butter, pies, cakes, biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon, cheese and cream tend to be high in saturated fat. However palm and coconut oils are increasingly finding a place in our food, and although both nut oils they are high in saturated fats, and indeed coconut oil contains more saturated fat that butter!
These foods can be eaten occasionally in small amounts as part of a healthy balanced diet. However, as a nation, we are eating too much saturated fat, far exceeding official health recommendations.
As mentioned previously, saturated fat should form no more than 11% of your daily calories. That’s around 20 grams a day for women and 30 grams for men. Children should consume even less. However as a nation we get 12.6% of our energy from saturated fat.
This is worrying, as the evidence shows that too much saturated fat in the diet raises blood cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Too much fat in the diet can mean too many calories leading to weight gain and obesity which significantly increases the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
With 62% of the population being overweight or obese, it is important that we cut back on calories, and one way to do this is to cut down on foods with saturated fat in our diet.
Of course dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt, form part of a healthy diet. But they too can be high in saturated fat so it’s important to make healthier choices and go for lower fat options. Try to check nutrient labels and colour coding on food packaging and choose options with more greens or ambers.
Unsaturated fat, that is monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, is found in plant foods and fish. Examples of foods high in unsaturated fats are:
- oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel,
- nuts and seeds,
- sunflower and olive oils,
- some fruit and vegetables, such as avocados.
As part of a healthy diet, we should try to cut down on foods and drinks high in saturated fats and trans fats and replace some of them with unsaturated fats. Within this, it is recommended that we eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish. This is because the scientific evidence tells us that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol, which can decrease your risk of heart disease.
The majority of trans fat in UK diets comes from natural sources in meat and milk. We know trans fats are harmful to health, but in the UK average consumption is already well within maximum recommended levels and is falling.
This is thanks to the efforts of food manufacturers and retailers to remove artificial trans fats from their products. The majority of processed foods in the UK no longer contain them.
A recent Canadian study published in a British health journal highlighted the dangers of trans fats even in small quantities, but this is a far greater issue in the USA where trans fats are still used in a number of processed foods.
So in a nutshell, we are eating too much saturated fat and should swap foods high in saturated fat for those with unsaturated fats. Trans fats are harmful but not a problem in the UK as they are rarely used in processed foods.
- In 2008 SACN endorsed the recommendation that intake of all fats should not exceed 35% daily energy (kcal) intake.
- Average intake of total fats for adults 19 to 64 years old is 34.6% (food energy) for 19 to 64 year olds.
- In 2007 SACN recommended that intake of trans fats should not exceed 2% daily energy (kcal) intake.
- Average intake of trans fats for adults 19 to 64 years old is 0.7% of daily energy (kcal) intake.
- In 2008 SACN endorsed the recommendation that intake of saturated fats should not exceed 11% daily energy (kcal) intake.
- Average intake of saturated fats for adults 19 to 64 years old is 12.6% of daily energy (kcal) intake