Fats (includes saturated fats)

Fat tends to receive a negative press but not all fats are bad for us. When thinking of ‘fat’ many people think of the one type – saturated fat which is harmful but there other fats which can be beneficial to us.

In general, there are 3 types of fats:

  • Saturated
  • Polyunsaturated
  • Monounsaturated

Much of our food will contain these fats but in different proportions. Some foods will be high in saturated fat whereas others will be high in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. It’s these proportions which determine the nutritional status of a food and its consequences for your health. Each of these fats has a different effect upon the body.

Experts agree that the typical Western diet contains too much fat and it’s these fats which can cause a range of health problems such as heart disease and cancer. The fat which is usually responsible for these problems is saturated fat.

Saturated fat is formed at room temperature and is termed as such because of the dense concentration of hydrogen atoms on each fat molecule. In other words, it is completely ‘saturated’ with these atoms. It is usually formed from animal sources such as meat and underneath the skin on poultry, such as chicken. If you are not sure whether a fat is saturated or not then a good way of checking this is to look in the pan after you have cooked a joint of meat. If you notice a hard white substance then that is saturated fat.

Saturated fat is also found in dairy sources such as lard, cream, butter, margarine, cheese and full fat milk. And, in cakes, biscuits, pastry, pies and chocolate.

These types of foods also contain ‘hydrogenated fats’ and ‘trans fats’ which occur during the process of turning liquid oil into fat, e.g. margarine. They have no nutritional value and can raise cholesterol levels which increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Unfortunately, we tend to enjoy high fat foods even though they are bad for us. It can be hard to resist so one way of dealing with this is to limit them to a ‘treat’ only or look for a low fat version.

Choose foods that contain unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. These are derived from vegetable sources and are liquid at room temperature. They do not contain dense hydrogen atoms and in fact, will have spaces around each fat molecule.

Polyunsaturated fats are ‘good’ fats in that they can lower ‘bad’ levels of cholesterol and reduce the symptoms of other medical conditions such as arthritis.

Good sources of polyunsaturated fats are oily fish such as sardines or salmon, low fat spreads and sunflower cooking oil.

Monounsaturated fats are ‘good’ fats as well. They too can reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. They had previously been seen as having no affect upon health but evidence has been found which suggests that there are some health benefits.

One such example is the ‘Mediterranean diet’. This diet is rich in foods which contain monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, fresh fish, olives and olive oil. It has been heavily promoted as the ideal ‘heart healthy’ diet as people who follow this diet tend to have lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

We do need some fat in our diet as it helps with the normal functions of the human body, for example, the immune system. Essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and omega 6 are good for cardiovascular health as well as influencing hormone production.

It is important to consume equal amounts of these two fats as an imbalance can lead to a whole range of problems.

Good sources of essential fatty acids include nuts and seeds, oily fish and fresh vegetables.

Other ways of reducing your intake of fats are switching to low fat dairy products such as skimmed milk; grilling or baking food rather than frying; eating fish and chicken rather than red meat; choosing olive or sunflower oil to cook with and avoiding high fat foods.

So what is considered ‘low fat’ or ‘high fat?’ If a food contains less than 3g of fat per 100 grams then it is low fat.

If a food contains more than 20g of fat per 100 grams then it is classed as high fat.

Visit our Food Groups section to learn more about fats and other nutrients.

Food Labelling Guide Index:

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