While it’s important to cut down on the total amount of fat we eat, it’s also vital to choose the right fats as this helps to improve the balance between non-HDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and HDL (‘good’) cholesterol. In particular, the focus should be on reducing saturated fats and trans fats, and swapping them for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, where possible. Most foods contain a mixture of different types of fat, but tend to be classed according to the ones found in greatest amounts.
Red meat, full-fat dairy products, and fats such as butter, lard and ghee, as well as coconut and palm oil, are amongst the richest sources of saturates. But foods like cakes, biscuits, pastries and chocolate can also contribute saturated fat to our diet, so it’s just as important to cut down on these.
According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey – a large survey that looks at what people eat in the UK – in adults aged 19 to 64 years, red meat, chicken and meat products such as bacon, ham, burgers, sausages, kebabs and meat pies provide around a quarter of the saturates in our diet. Milk and cheese provide 17% and butter provides 6%. Sweet treats like biscuits, cakes, pastries, puddings, ice cream and chocolate account for 15% of the saturates in our diet .
On average, we have around 25g saturated fat in our diet each day . This is more than is recommended. In the UK, the Reference Intake for saturated fat is no more than 20g a day .
In the UK and EU, foods that have a low or reduced content of saturates can include the following information on the packaging: Reducing consumption of saturated fat contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol .
These can be divided into two groups:
- Omega-3 fats – small amounts of omega-3 fats are found in plant foods like rapeseed oil, walnut oil, flaxseeds, nuts, soya and green leafy veg, but it’s hard to get all the omega-3 fats we need in this way. Oil-rich fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout, pilchards, kippers and herring provide a ‘ready-made’ source of omega-3 fats in good amounts.
- Omega-6 fats – omega-6 fats are found in corn, sunflower and soya oils and spreads that are made from these.
Good sources of monounsaturates include olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturates and monounsaturates in the diet contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels  and has been shown to lower blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease .
Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in red meat and dairy products. They are also created when vegetable oils are processed to create solid fats. In the past, these manufactured fats – known as hydrogenated fats – were widely used in foods like cakes, biscuits, spreads, pastries and pies, as well as in many takeaway outlets. It wasn’t good news for heart health as these types of fats, like saturated fats, increase ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Many manufacturers have now removed hydrogenated fats from their products and as a result, most people in the UK have fewer trans fats than the maximum daily amount recommended . Eating fewer fried, processed and takeaway foods is the best way to keep intakes down.
Myth buster: Butter is a natural fat and better for your cholesterol than spread
Just because butter comes straight from nature doesn’t mean it’s healthier for you. Calorie wise – butter, sunflower, rapeseed or olive oil spreads are fairy similar, but it’s the type of fat that’s different.
Spreads tend to contain unsaturated fat, which can help to keep cholesterol levels under control, or even actively lower it when it contains plant stanols – the active ingredient in Benecol, whereas saturated fat found in butter can increase cholesterol levels.
Indeed a 10g serving of butter (one of those little packs that you get in cafes and restaurants) contains around 5g of saturated fat – that’s a quarter of our daily recommended limit of saturated fat. This is clearly a case of nature doesn’t always know best!
1. Public Health England / Food Standards Agency (2018) National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Results from Years 7-8 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2014/15 – 2015/16).
2. NHS. Reference Intakes explained. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-reference-intakes-on-food-labels/ Accessed May 2020.
3. EFSA. Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to foods with reduced amounts of saturated fatty acids (SFAs) and maintenance of normal blood LDL cholesterol concentrations (ID 620, 671, 4332) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006
Available at https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2062
Accessed May 2020.
4. EFSA. Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to the replacement of mixtures of saturated fatty acids (SFAs) as present in foods or diets with mixtures of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and/or mixtures of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and maintenance of normal blood LDL cholesterol concentrations (ID 621, 1190, 1203, 2906, 2910, 3065) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. Available at https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2069
Accessed May 2020.
5. PHE 2019. Public Health Matters: preventing cardiovascular disease. Available at https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/14/health-matters-preventing-cardiovascular-disease/ Accessed May 2020.