Facts on Fats
Article by: Louise Bennion – registered nutritionist
Often demonised by the media and diet world, fats have been given a bad rep since as early as the 70s. With many consumers believing that no matter what, eating fat will make you fat.
So, let’s look at the fat facts.
-Fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet- a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself.
-Fat provides energy; 1 gram provides 37 kJ (9 kcal). For reference, both 1 gram of carbohydrates and 1 gram of protein only contain 4 calories.
-Fat helps the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they can only be absorbed with the help of fats.
Cholesterol in foods
In the past, it was thought that eating foods containing cholesterol (for example eggs, liver, kidney and shellfish such as prawns and crab) would raise our blood cholesterol (BNF, 2021). However, the amount of saturated fat in the diet has much more of an impact on blood cholesterol levels than cholesterol in foods. So, you can reassure your patients that there is no need to avoid or minimise these foods with respect to cholesterol unless you it’s appropriate for the treatment or prevention of health conditions like coronary heart disease (CHD) or atherosclerosis (NHS, 2020).
It is true that too much fat in your diet which can be a result of excess calories, especially saturated fats, can raise your cholesterol, which increases risk of weight gain heart disease, strokes and vascular dementia (BHF, 2021; Gutiérrez-Cuevas et al., 2021; NHS Digital, 2020). Most people in the UK eat too much saturated and trans fats. Some dietary patterns that are relatively high in fat such as the Mediterranean diet are associated with health benefits. In this case, the fat in the diet is mainly unsaturated and coming from foods such as nuts, oily fish and olive oil (NHS, 2023). The most important thing is to have a healthy dietary pattern overall with most of the fat in the diet coming from unsaturated sources.
Low-fat weight diets have been used for weight loss for many years and can be effective for some people. Studies comparing different weight loss diets in the longer term (6-12 months) have found that there is no one diet that is the ‘best’ for weight loss, and this is down to different things working for different people (Hall & Kahan, 2018). If patients are interested in reducing the amount of fat in their diet, you can suggest that they do so by limiting high-fat foods such as deep-fried chips, pastries, cakes and biscuits, reducing fat used in cooking and by choosing reduced fat products such as low-fat yogurt or fat spread.
Current UK government recommendations state that men should not eat more than 30g of saturated fat a day and women should not eat more than 20g of saturated fat a day (BNF, 2021; Nestel et al., 2021). Both men and women shouldn’t have any more than 5g of trans fats per day (NHS, 2020). For advising patients wanting to reduce risk of heart disease, it’s best to reduce your overall fat intake and swap saturated fats for unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats including olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish (BDA, 2021; Sikand & Severson, 2020).
To help patients put this advice into practice when food shopping, if they’re considering buying low or reduced fat products like cheese or yoghurt, prompt them look at the nutritional value of the product as a whole- often these products contain a lot of water, salt and/ or sugar to enhance the flavour of these products. So, in some cases, the full fat product may be the healthier option.
For more information regarding different types of fats and how to reduce saturated fat intake, there are plenty of online resources you can signpost patients to including The British Heart Foundation, British Nutrition Foundation and NHS Digital.
- BDA, 2021 https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/cholesterol.html#:~:text=Choose%20healthier%20fats,fish%20(see%20Table%201).
- BHF, 2021 https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/healthy-eating/fats-explained
BNF, 2021 https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthy-sustainable-diets/fat/?level=Health%20professional
- Gutiérrez-Cuevas, J., Santos, A., & Armendariz-Borunda, J. (2021). Pathophysiological molecular mechanisms of obesity: A link between MAFLD and NASH with cardiovascular diseases. International Journal of molecular sciences, 22(21), 11629.
- Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. 2018 Jan;102(1):183-197. doi: 10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012. PMID: 29156185; PMCID: PMC5764193.
- Nestel, P. J., Beilin, L. J., Clifton, P. M., Watts, G. F., & Mori, T. A. (2021). Practical guidance for food consumption to prevent cardiovascular disease. Heart, Lung and Circulation, 30(2), 163-179.
- NHS, 2020 https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/prevention/
- NHS, 2023 https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/different-fats-nutrition/#:~:text=The%20government%20recommends%20that%3A,children%20should%20have%20less
- NHS 2023 https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/eat-less-saturated-fat/
- NHS Digital, 2020 https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england-2020
- SACN, 2019 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/saturated-fats-and-health-sacn-report
- Sikand, G., & Severson, T. (2020). Top 10 dietary strategies for atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk reduction. American Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 4, 100106.