Believe it or not, fat has an important role to play in any healthy diet, providing a source of energy as well as essential fatty acids. However, there are different types of fat present in our food and some of these are healthier than others –excess intake of saturated fat has been linked to increased LDL-cholesterol, one of the risk factors in the development of coronary heart disease*. So what are saturated fats, and how may they affect your health?
What are saturated fats?
To give some more information about saturated fat: it is a fat found in relatively high amounts in foods such as fatty meat and meat products and full fat dairy products, including butter, cheese and cream. Some popular foods that are high in saturated fat – ranging from baked goods like cakes and biscuits, to pizza and pork pies. Perhaps surprisingly, it can also be found in some plant foods, for example coconut oil and palm oil are high in saturated fat.
What does saturated fat do to your cholesterol levels?
Having too much cholesterol in the blood is one of the risk factors in the development of coronary heart disease* – and eating too much saturated fat and high cholesterol levels have been linked in scientific studies. There is convincing evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats in the diet can help lower “bad” LDL-cholesterol*, which – if elevated – is one of the risk factors in the development of coronary heart disease**.
According to the most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (the survey designed to collect detailed information on food consumption and nutrient intake of the general population in the UK) in 2015/2016, most people in the UK are exceeding the recommended intake of saturated fat, but are within the recommended intake of total fat.
How to reduce or replace the saturated fat in your diet
- Know your ‘Reference Intakes’ (RI) – these are guidelines to show you the maximum amount of nutrients you can eat in a day. Take a look at the guidelines here.
- Read food labels. When buying packaged food, it’s a good idea to check the nutritional information on the packet. Many packets will have information on Reference Intakes (formerly Guideline Daily Allowance) on the front, using the traffic light system to indicate the amount of energy, total fat, saturated fat, sugars, and salt per serving (and an indication of serving size) – find out more about this here. If nutritional information is only given per 100g, bear in mind that we rarely eat exactly 100 grams of any food. How much saturated fat is going to be in the amount you will actually be eating?
- Replace foods high in saturated fats with those containing more unsaturated fats where possible. It helps to know what the main sources of saturated fat are and what foods make suitable replacements. Check out our Simple Swaps page here for ideas – it’s a good way to find tasty alternatives to foods high in saturated fat. But remember, foods containing a lot of fat, whether unsaturated or saturated, are high in calories so portion control is important.
- Swap full fat dairy options for reduced, lower fat or unsaturated fat options. For example, consider opting for semi-skimmed or skimmed rather than full fat milk, or melting a vegetable oil based soft spread over your baked potatoes or vegetables rather than butter.
- Cook cleverly. Poaching, boiling, baking, steaming, and grilling meat, fish, or eggs use less fat than frying. When frying is necessary, use unsaturated vegetable oils like olive, rapeseed or sunflower or products made from them, as they are a good source of unsaturated fat. Also try trimming the fat off meat and taking the skin off chicken.
Find out more about saturated fats
If you’d like to find out a little more about saturated fat and cholesterol, our articles on saturated fat vs. unsaturated fat, the definition of unsaturated fat, and how to make a cholesterol lowering diet plan are here to help. And for those who are keen to get their cholesterol lowering lifestyle underway as soon as possible, download our free Cholesterol Lowering Starter Kit here.
*Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol**.
**High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. There are many risk factors for coronary heart disease, and it is important to take care of all of them to reduce the overall risk of it.
- NHS (2017) Fat: The Facts. (accessed 16 May 2019)
- Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2018). Draft report: Saturated Fats and Health. (accessed 16 May 2019).
- Hooper L et al. (2015) Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews(6)
- Roberts, C., Steer, T., Maplethorpe, N. et al.(2018). National Diet and Nutrition Survey Results from years 7 and 8 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2014/2015–2015/2016). London: Department of Health and Food Standards Agency
- European Commission (2011). Regulation (EU) no 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers, amending regulations (EC) no 1924/2006 and (EC) no 1925/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Commission directive 87/250/EEC, Council directive 90/496/EEC, Commission directive 1999/10/EC, directive 2000/13/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, Commission directives 2002/67/EC and 2008/5/EC and Commission regulation (EC) no 608/2004. (accessed 16 May 2019)
- Stanner S & Coe S (2019) Cardiovascular Disease: Diet, Nutrition and Emerging Risk Factors, 2nd Edition, Keith N Frayn, Chair.Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, UK.
The British Nutrition Foundation has reviewed the accuracy of the scientific content of this page in May 2019 (please note this does not include linked pages). The Foundation does not endorse any brands or products. For more information about the Foundation, please visit www.nutrition.org.uk
This information has been included in good faith, but is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a guarantee. The nutritional facts and statements on this site are designed for educational and resource purpose sonly, not being substitutes for professional advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always check with your GP or healthcare professional.