Butter in a question mark shape on a slice of toast

Saturated fat – what you need to know

Are butter and bacon really the bad guys? With new research showing saturated fat might not be as damaging to health as originally thought, nutritionist Jo Lewin explains what these findings mean for your daily diet...

What we thought we knew about saturated fat…

For decades, the health community has presented saturated fat as a major risk factor for the development of cholesterol and heart disease. The demonisation of saturated fat was based on the theory that it raised LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is thought can block arteries and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

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Now, new evidence suggests that saturated fat may not be directly linked to raised LDL cholesterol, however eating a diet high in fat can contribute to obesity, which in itself is a risk factor for heart disease.

It is important to monitor your total fat intake and eat a healthy, balanced diet. The Department of Health recommends that total fat intake should not exceed 35% of our total daily energy (calorie) needs and the maximum for saturated fats is 11% of our total daily energy (calorie) needs.

    Saturated fat – what still holds true?

    Different cakes and biscuits
    • Saturated fat is the kind of fat found in butter and lard, pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon, and full fat dairy products such as cheese and cream.
       
    • Most adults eat too much saturated fat – about 12.6% of our energy needs which is more than recommended maximum amounts.
       
    • The recommended daily amounts of total (and saturated) fat remain the same: 
      Reference Intake: consume no more than 70g fat (20g of saturated fat) a day.

    New research – out with the old…

    Recent research suggests the longstanding advice to cut out saturated fats and increase polyunsaturated fats (such as omega-3 and omega-6) may not be crucial to health after all. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, analysed data from over 600,000 participants and concluded that; 

    ”Current evidence does not clearly support (existing) cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fat”. 

    Other research looking at the relationship between saturated fat intake and the incidence of heart disease, has also found the results to be inconclusive. 

    New research does not support existing guidelines to limit the consumption of saturated fat in order to reduce the risk of heart disease. The only types of fat found to have a significant link to coronary disease were trans-fats.

    A bit about trans-fats…

    Takeaway chips with ketchuop

    Trans fatty acids (or trans-fats) are produced when vegetable oils are hydrogenated. This is a chemical process that hardens the vegetable oil for their widespread use as an ingredient in frying and baking. Hydrogenated oils are used by food manufacturers to improve the shelf life, taste and culinary properties of processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, pies and takeaway foods. There is a small amount of naturally occurring trans-fats in dairy products, such as cheese and cream and in beef, lamb and mutton.  

    Concern about the health implications of consuming high intakes of trans-fats has led to changes in manufacturing practices in recent years and good progress has been made to remove them from some foods, although there has not been a complete ban.

    Why avoid trans-fats?

    Trans-fats have been proven to raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Trans-fats can also reduce the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, as well as increasing levels of triglycerides – another form of blood fat. All of these effects of trans-fats can raise your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and dietary intake should be controlled.

    Is saturated fat good or bad?

    Child eating colourful breakfast cereal

    When asking whether saturated fat is good or bad, the question should be, compared to what
    • Compared to trans-fats, saturated fat is healthier.
       
    • Compared to complex carbohydrates, such as wholegrains, saturated fat is neutral.
       
    • Compared to refined carbohydrates found in white breads, sweet breakfast cereals and snack foods, saturated fat appears to be a better choice…

    …Refined carbohydrates are more likely than saturated fat to contribute to heart disease and other health issues. Simple changes, such as swapping white bread for wholegrain and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables would have a bigger impact on heart disease risk than simply reducing saturated fat.

    How to read food labels…

    When looking at food labels, look at the per 100g column to judge if they contain high levels of fat:

    High Total Fat = more than 17.5 g fat per 100g
    Medium Total Fat = 3.1g – 17.5g fat per 100g
    Low Total Fat = 3.0g fat or less per 100g

    High Sat Fat = more than 5g of saturates per 100g
    Medium Sat Fat = 1.6 – 4.9g saturates per 100g
    Low Sat Fat = 1.5g or less of saturates per 100g

    A balanced diet is key…

    Balanced diet in lunchbox

    Recommendations for a healthy diet are to get enough exercise, eat whole foods where possible, stick to sensible portion sizes and vary the foods you eat. The Mediterranean diet, based upon fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and products made from vegetable and plant oils, has been linked to a lower risk of heart attack and cardiovascular related issues. Eating a diet rich in whole foods, paying attention to what is consumed as well as what is excluded, is often more effective in preventing against cardiovascular disease than restrictive, low-fat and low-cholesterol diets. 

    This article was last reviewed on 6th December 2018 by Kerry Torrens.

    Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

    Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

    All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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    How do you feel about the lastest evidence regarding saturated fat? We’d love to hear what you think…