Fats and sugars, although an important energy source, often contain few other nutrients, so it’s healthier to limit their consumption.
Fat transports the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K around the body
It can often improve the flavour and perception of foods, increasing their palatability
It supplies essential nutrients such as fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids (EFAs)
EFAs must be supplied from the diet, and are thought to have a positive effect on heart health and the immune system
It has a key role in membrane structure. It cushions, and so protects, the internal organs. It’s stored in adipose tissue (a thick layer of tissue under the skin) as a long-term fuel reserve. Excess fat may also accumulate around your organs, especially in the abdominal cavity. Fat is a concentrated source of energy. Just 1g provides nine calories - more than double the calories in 1g of protein or carbohydrate.
This means it’s much easier to consume too many calories when eating high-fat foods. People trying to manage their weight should reduce fatty foods to help cut calories. We all need some fat in our diets, but small quantities of EFAs are the key to good health.
The two types of fat
Fat can be divided into two main groups - saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature and is usually from animal sources. It’s found in lard, butter, hard margarine, cheese, whole milk and anything that contains these ingredients, such as cakes, chocolate, biscuits, pies and pastries. It’s also the white fat you can see on red meat and underneath poultry skin.
The value of saturated and unsaturated fat in our diets isn’t fully understood yet but generally, eating too much saturated fat is associated with increased blood cholesterol concentrations and an increased risk of heart disease. Eating less helps to minimise the risks it poses to heart health. Polyunsaturated fats contain inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and it’s the balance of these with omega-3s which is important.
Trans fats, or hydrogenated unsaturated fats, are used in the food industry but are increasingly recognised as being unhealthy.
Unsaturated fat is usually liquid at room temperature and generally comes from vegetable sources. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are both included in this group. Unsaturated vegetable oils are generally a healthier alternative to saturated fat and can be found in sesame, sunflower, soya and olive oil, soft margarine and in foods such as oily fish, including mackerel, sardines, pilchards and salmon. Where possible, you should ensure the fat you eat is unsaturated.
How much is enough?
UK Government guidelines recommend fats make up no more than 35 per cent of the energy in your diet, and that saturated fats should provide less than 11 per cent of total energy intake.
For the average woman, this means about 70g of total fat a day; for men, roughly 95g.
To reduce the amount of fat in your diet, try the following:
Look for alternatives to cakes, biscuits and savoury snacks, which are often high in fat - try fresh fruit, dried fruit and cereal-based products. Trim any visible fat off meat and poultry. Buy lean cuts of meat and reduced-fat minces Poach, steam, grill or bake food rather than fry it. Swap whole milk for semi-skimmed or skimmed. Opt for low-fat dairy products If you use lard, butter or hard margarine, switch to vegetable oil and low-fat spreads
There are two types of sugar - those found naturally in fruit and milk (which are fine and don’t need to be cut down) and those that are added to the diet.
These added sugars can be found in a variety of foods including confectionery, soft drinks, desserts and breakfast cereals. Added sugars are a great source of energy, but provide no other nutrients.