With Christmas coming up, many people will be worried about the amount of fat they are consuming during the festive period. In my first blog post for talkhealth, I hope to dispel some of the myths surrounding fat.
Although the perception of fat is often negative, it is an important nutrient and essential for a healthy and balanced diet. Eating fats allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K while providing essential fatty acids. However, not all fats are equal and to make more informed changes to our diet, we need to first understand the difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ fats.
What is the difference between good and bad fats?
The fats found in your food are often either saturated or unsaturated fats. Foods particularly high in saturated fats include butter, chocolate and meat products. If you consume too many saturated fats, you risk raising LDL cholesterol in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Unsaturated fats can be either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated. These include foods such as avocados, olive oil and some nuts. These fats can contribute to the maintenance of good HDL cholesterol and the reduction of bad LDL cholesterol. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can be a good way of reducing your risk of heart disease.
There is one type of fat that we should be especially cautious of – trans fats. Such fats can be created by the process of hydrogenating oil and can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats are banned in many European countries and there are plans to ban them completely in the US and Canada. However, they are still present in some foods in the UK despite many manufacturers significantly cutting down their usage.
How much fat should we be eating?
The ‘right’ amount of fat to eat depends on your body mass index (BMI). People who are overweight or obese might need to consider reducing their fat and saturated fat intake, whereas those who are underweight might need to increase the amount of fat they consume. The Department of Health offers a general recommendation that a person’s total fat intake should be no more than 35% of their total calorie intake, while their total saturated fat intake should not exceed 11% of the energy they get from food.
A useful way to keep track of how much fat and saturated fat you are consuming is to make note of Reference Intake (RI) values that are featured on food labels in accordance to European law. These values include the amount of energy, total fat content and fat which saturates so you can make a more informed decision about which foods are right for you. However, it is important to understand that the guidelines are not intended to be targets, but rather the maximum amount that adults in the UK should consume daily.
Are “low-fat” products always better for you?
Making simple switches from full-fat to low-fat product varieties can help maintain a healthy diet for those looking to cut down on their fat intake. However, it is important to note that just because a food product is marketed as ‘low-fat’, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has a low-fat content, it just means it has at least 30% less fat than similar products. For instance, mayonnaise has a high-fat content and low-fat varieties are likely still high in fat content. If you’re concerned about the amount of fat you are eating, it’s best to check the label and find out exactly how much fat a product has.
Dr Maheinthan Yogeswaran is a GP for the MedicSpot private GP service.