Good food guide

Find out about fat

content supplied byNHS Choices

A small amount of fat is an important part of a balanced diet, and not all fats are bad for health. But too much fat (including ghee, above) can have serious consequences.

Scroll down to watch a video about eating well on a budget

Fat contains a lot of calories and most people in the UK eat too much fat, which causes weight gain.

Everyone stores some fat under the skin and around the internal organs, but where excess fat is stored differs from person to person. Some people store excess fat around their middle and some store it around their thighs and bottom. Putting on weight around the middle can be a more serious risk factor for health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, particularly if you're of South Asian origin. For more information on the risks of putting on weight around your belly, see Why body shape matters.

Not all fat is bad

There are different types of fat and some fat is an important part of a balanced diet. Fat helps the body absorb certain nutrients and is a source of energy. Cutting back on the total amount of fat you eat is a good idea, but it's also important to think about the type of fat you’re eating.

To help cut down on saturated fat, avoid frying food. Try steaming, baking or grilling instead 

Saturated fat (sometimes called 'bad fat') occurs in many foods. Foods with high levels of saturated fat include:

  • butter
  • ghee
  • lard
  • cream
  • cheese
  • processed products such as sausages, kebabs, pastries, pies, biscuits and cakes

Too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most people need to cut down on the amount of saturated fat in their diet.

Unsaturated fat (sometimes called 'good fat') is found in foods such as:

  • oily fish (for example mackerel and salmon) 
  • nuts and seeds
  • sunflower oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • olive oil
  • avocados

These fats can help reduce cholesterol levels. Try to replace some of the saturated fat you eat with these good fats.

High fat and low fat

A good way to help cut down your fat intake is to read the label on the packaging of any food you buy.

Food labels show the amount of total fat ('good' and 'bad') in the food, as well as the amount of saturated fat alone.

  • A food is high in total fat if there is more than 20g of fat per 100g. 
  • A food is high in saturated fat if there is more than 5g of saturates per 100g.

You can also look out for the traffic light label system, which is now used on the front of many food packets. This will tell you at a glance if a food is high in fat, sugar or salt. A red label means high, so limit the amount of these foods you eat. 

What 'low fat' really means

Be aware that foods labelled 'low fat' are not necessarily low in fat. All the low-fat label really means is that a food is 25% lower in fat than the standard equivalent.

For example, a low-fat microwave meal could still contain much more fat than a meal you cook at home with your own ingredients. A low-fat doughnut is 25% lower in fat than a standard doughnut, but it’s still high in fat compared to other snacks, such as a yoghurt or a handful of dried fruit.

Food manufacturers can also increase the sugar or salt content of low-fat foods. Most people eat too much sugar, and high-sugar foods can also lead to weight gain. Likewise, most people in the UK tend to eat too much salt, and this can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Omega-3: the healthy heart fat

One type of unsaturated fat, called omega-3, has been shown to help keep the heart healthy and protect against heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in oily fish such as fresh tuna, mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines and pilchards. It’s recommended that you eat two portions of fish a week, one of them oily.

Next time you're going to cook fish, try steaming it instead of frying it. Or you could try baking, grilling or poaching it. These methods are much less fatty than frying, and if you make this change regularly you'll be reducing your fat intake and helping to keep your heart healthy.

Read 10 tips for a healthy diet from Dr Justin Zaman of the South Asian Health Foundation and cardiologist at University College London Hospitals.

  • The term 'south Asian' refers here to anyone of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Sri Lankan origin. Each of these communities has its own unique culture and background, but they share some common health issues.

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