Is saturated fat bad for you?

Is saturated fat bad for you? Is saturated fat bad for you?

Eating too much of any single food or single nutrient is a bad idea, health-wise. The balanced diet that’s so important for a healthy heart (among other things) involves eating a variety of different foods in the right proportions. Balancing fruits and vegetables with higher fibre starchy foods, dairy or dairy alternatives, protein sources like beans, fish and lean meat, and healthier fats (including good sources of unsaturated fat) – is the basis of any healthy diet.

However, not all of us manage to get this balance quite right, and in the UK on average we eat too much saturated fat, sugars and salt and not enough fibre, fruits and vegetables and oily fish. It’s not necessary to avoid eating saturated fat altogether, but we could all benefit from thinking about our intake every now and again – 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) , on average we are exceeding the recommended amount.

So why should we cut down on the amount of saturated fat we eat?

A quick guide to fats

Some types of fat are healthier than others. A healthy balanced diet will include a certain amount of fat, as it contributes towards plenty of important processes in the body. But in the foods that we eat there are different types of fat – saturated fats and unsaturated fats – and it is recommended that we reduce the amount of saturated fat we eat and replace some with unsaturated fats: saturated fats should account for around a maximum of one third of our total fat intake, with unsaturated fats making up the rest. This fits in with the guideline to reduce saturated fat intake and replace some of this with unsaturated fat to help keep our cholesterol at a healthy level.

Replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels*. This is important because elevated cholesterol is one of the risk factors of heart disease – so it is good to be aware of the balance of your saturated and unsaturated fat intake. Don’t forget, obesity is a risk factor for heart disease so weight management is important and we need to be aware of the quantity of total fat in our diet.

If too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol, how do I eat less of it?

Knowing the kinds of foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat – and those that do not – is a good way to make choices when it comes to planning a healthy diet. While it’s not possible or necessary to eliminate saturated fat from your diet completely because it is present in many foods, you will be able to make informed decisions as you shop and prepare meals.

  • Foods that are high in saturated fat include: most full fat dairy products such as butter, cheese and cream; and fatty meat and meat products. It’s also present in many processed foods, particularly baked goods like cakes and biscuits.
  • Foods high in unsaturated fats include vegetable oils (and vegetable oil based products, like the Flora ProActiv spreads), oily fish, nuts, avocado, and seeds. A bit of savvy cooking can help you reduce your total intake of saturated fats and replace some of this with unsaturated fats:
  • Try cooking with unsaturated vegetable oils like olive, rapeseed and sunflower or drizzling over salads for a healthier meal.
  • On toast and in sandwiches, opt for vegetable oil-based soft spreads, like Flora ProActiv.
  • Instead of eating cakes or chocolate bars as a mid-afternoon snack, try taking a small portion of nuts such as almonds, walnuts or macadamias, which are a good source of unsaturated fats, into work. Just remember to be aware of portion size as large quantities of nuts provide many calories – read the packaging to work out a suitable portion size, but as a rough guide a small handful is a good amount.
  • Buying reduced or lower fat rather than full-fat dairy can also be a good way to reduce the saturated fat in your diet.

A few small changes go a long way, and our free Cholesterol Lowering Starter Kit is specially designed to help you get started. Find out more here.

*Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor of 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.

Key references

  • Stanner S & Coe S (2019) Cardiovascular Disease: Diet, Nutrition and Emerging Risk Factors, 2nd Edition, Keith N Frayn, Chair. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, UK.
  • Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2018). Draft report: Saturated Fats and Health. (accessed 16 May 2019).
  • 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.
  • NHS (2017) Fat: The Facts. (accessed 16 May 2019)
  • European Commission (2016) EU register on nutrition and health claims. (accessed 16 May 2019).

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