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Fats in the diet

Fats in the diet

by FoodMaestro | 16 January 2017

Understanding different fats in the diet and practical food swaps 

By: Rhiannon Lewis (Student Dietitian)

The amount and type of fats we eat affect our health. Our bodies need some fat from our diet, however, if the balance of fat intake is off the effects on our health are most commonly increased risks of obesity, stroke, heart disease and cancer. Choosing and managing our diets wisely can help avoid increasing health risks.

The amount of fat in the diet

The more calories we take in the more likely we are to gain weight if it tallies up to be more than we burn. Calories are a measure of energy content. There are more calories per gram of fat than there are per gram of carbohydrate or protein; 9 calories per gram of fat and 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate and protein to be exact! So, if you eat a lot of fat, the more likely you are to take in too much energy which will be stored as fat in our usual fat stores but when stores get high fat can deposit onto surrounding our organs like our heart and liver.

Types of fats

You can further improve your health by choosing types the right types of fat for our diet.

Saturated fats are ones which we are advised to keep an eye on – the ‘bad’ fats if you like which can raise the ‘bad’ cholesterol in our blood. Yet, we still need some in our diet so the trick is not to exclude completely but avoid choosing products with high saturated fat content as your main source of fat. These tend to be more the animal fats.

To recognise these saturated fats at a glance, think about whether it is liquid or solid at room temperature. The more saturated a fat is the harder it will be at room temperature. For example, olive oil is liquid and has low saturated fat content whereas coconut oil is solid and has a higher saturated fat content. Other examples of foods high in saturated fat include butter and full fat dairy, ghee, lard, fatty (marbled/gristly) meat and products made with these as ingredient such as biscuits, pies, ready meals and takeaways.

Unsaturated fats are split into 2 groups; MUFAs and PUFAs which stand for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Having more unsaturated fat than saturated fat in the diet can help to increase the ‘good’ cholesterol in our blood and lower the ‘bad’ cholesterol.  These tend to be in more plant-derived foods. You can find these fats in, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit and oils such as olive, sunflower, rapeseed (vegetable) but also fish. Fish contains a special type of unsaturated fat called ‘omega-3’ fats. Omega-3 fats are essential to be included in our diet as we cannot make our own omega-3 fats quick enough to keep up with the amounts our bodies use and they have a number of health benefits. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and pilchards are good sources of omega-3 fats.

High, medium and low levels of fat

For an average-sized woman with average physical activity levels, the maximum levels of total fat recommended is 70g per day with a maximum of 20g of the total 70g fat to be saturated.

A medium total fat content of a food product is considered to be between 3g to 17.5g of fat per 100g with figures above or below this range being considered as high or low respectively.

For saturated fat the medium range is 1.5g to 5g of saturated fat per 100g of product, again, with figures above or below considered as high and low levels.

Tip: Remember the traffic light system on the front of food packaging: green, amber and red colours correspond to low, medium and high contents of a nutrient in a food product.

Useful swaps and tips:

  1. Aim to have more plant sources of fats than animal sources of fats as they will be lower in saturated fats and higher in unsaturated fats.
  2. Choose fats which are more liquid at room temperature. For example, olive oil instead of coconut oil.
  3. Apply oil with a spray bottle rather than pouring.
  4. Replace fatty meats with oily fish around twice a week.
  5. Cut the skin and gristle off meats.
  6. Opt for leaner cuts of meat; turkey and chicken are lower in fat than pork and lamb.
  7. Eat less ready meals and takeaways.
  8. Have a handful of nuts as a snack instead of a packet of crisps or a few biscuits. 
  9. Opt for skimmed or semi-skimmed milk instead of full fat milk.
  10. Opt for softer cheeses such as cottage cheese over hard cheese such as cheddar.


We need fats in the diet but in lower quantities than many of us are having and the type of fat we choose to eat is also important. If we choose wisely to keep the amount and type of fat we eat in check, we can help ourselves by reducing our risk of obesity, stroke, heart disease and cancer to lead longer and healthier lives!

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