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...

Butter in a question mark shape on a slice of toast

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. 

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?Cake

    • 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...

    TakeawayTrans 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?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 dietRecommendations 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 works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

    All health content on 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.

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


    Comments, questions and tips

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    chrisnation's picture
    25th Sep, 2014
    We've been here before many, many times: eggs bad/eggs good [I was surprised to find that a two-egg omlette was served as breakfast every day in the ICU I was in, in a leading US hospital] - red wine bad/red wine good ["Up to a point, Lord Copper"] - coffee good/bad/good/bad ... red meat good/bad/good/bad .. Anybody who is even mildly interested in a reasonably healthy diet - or at least in avoiding an outright unhealthy one - has discovered by now what that adds up to. These contradictory reports on foodstuffs just gives rise to confusion and scepticism. What I've always wanted to know is - the diet of the Inuit of the Arctic is virtually fruit & veg-free, very little if any farinacious [cereal/pasta/rice etc], minimal dairy [reindeer milk?] and consists largely of meat, especially super-fatty seal meat and blubber. So how come they are not the world record cholesterol and arteriosclerosis holders? How come these people do not keel over with heart attacks before they reach 25? And then there's the [northern] 'French Paradox'. Wine and a cuisine big on cooking with cream and butter and yet the level of heart disease in that population is far lower than the 'experts' would expect.
    14th Apr, 2014
    Come on. There is so much research now showing that starchy carbs, not just sugar, whole or not, are the culprits in obesity. If this were not the case why would there be a whole country basing its healthy eating on eating fat and not eating or drinking starchy or sugary carbs? Why would people like Zoe Harcombe, Sam Feltham, Andreas Eenfeldt, Malcolm Kendrick, John Briffa, Aseem Malhotra Tim Noakes be so vocal that this is so, having read and analysed far more papers on the subject than you. You need to catch up and stop telling people to eat sugar, whether wholemeal or not.
    13th Apr, 2014
    Basically, cut out processed foods and you'll probably live a much healthier life! Getting kids into cooking at school more might be a good place to start but promoting easy home cooking to everyone is the key - I find it's cheaper to cook than buy ready made foods but a lot of people probably don't realise this. I think for those people who don't cook it's about learning to make time to cook and enjoying it!
    10th Apr, 2014
    I have to agree with jmeyburgh. I have been eating according to Tim Noakes book and i have to say, i am loving it. I am losing on average 1 -1.5kg a week, i'm not always hungry. I'm loving the food as it is high fat and i'm not missing the sugar or sweets or chocolate. I make my own sugar free ice-cream which is delicious and as opposed to your views that a high fat diet will lead to heart disease, my cholesterol before i started on this was at 4.8 and 6 weeks into the diet, it was around 3. It actually registered as "Low" with the doctors, so they guessed it to be around 3, maybe less. I'm a believer in Tim Noakes as soo many of my friends and their friends are finding similar results too.
    9th Apr, 2014
    Regarding Fats, I believe that you are right about trans fats and they should be banned, along with many other unnatural substances used in the preparation of our food. I have read many conflicting reports and studies on health and what is good and bad. I firmly believe that what is good for one person is not neccessarily good for another. The reason for this is all down to what blood type you are and what foods are beneficial for our type and what foods to positively avoid. Once you have ascertained what you need to eat for your personal blood group, make sure that your food is as natural, whole and unadulterated as possible. Refer to the book Eat Right For Your Type by Dr Peter J D'Adamo. Good health everyone!
    9th Apr, 2014
    There are so many conflicting comments about good/bad fats , we are never quite sure if what we are consuming is right ..
    9th Apr, 2014
    But this is only half the story and may just be inconclusive as you have omitted to mention a couple of other fundamental facts. Sugar (Carbohydrates), spikes in insulin levels are now very closely related to heart failure. Would love to see more Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) recipes featured on your sight. In SA we have been introduced to a revolutionary way of eating by Prof Tim Noakes - if you are interested, you should take a look at the website where Prof Noakes has done terrific research on the benefits of fat in the diet.
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