A high intake of saturated fats can increase blood cholesterol levels and, in turn, risk of heart disease. But what makes saturated fats the bad guys – and how do we cut back on them? Dietitian Azmina Govindji has the answers.
The message is clear, say health experts: eating too much saturated fat can have serious adverse health consequences, including increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the NHS, through its recently launched Change4Life movement, are embarking on major publicity campaigns to get across the healthier eating message – including a reduction in the amount of ‘bad’ fats we consume.
Why we need to cut back...
According to the FSA, intakes of fat in UK diets are currently around 20 per cent higher than government recommendations. As well as increasing the risk of heart disease, these high intakes of fat are helping to fuel rising rates of obesity in both children and adults. As Azmina points out, “Fat, weight for weight, has more than twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein.”
By consuming lower amounts of saturated fats and switching to healthier monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, we can improve our cholesterol level and thus reduce our heart disease risk, explains the FSA.
As well as raising consumer awareness of the risks of eating too much bad fat, the agency is working with the UK’s food industry to reduce the saturated fat content in food products.
Identifying the 'fat villains'
High levels of saturated fats are found mostly in animal products like fatty meat, and in dairy products such as butter, cheese, cream and full-fat milk, explains Azmina.
“Sausages and burgers are generally high in fat, so choose alternatives like skinless chicken or lean mince,” she advises. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – try turkey (without the skin on) or turkey mince.”
To cut down on the amount of saturated fats you consume, switch from full-fat milk to skimmed or semi-skimmed, she adds, and choose lower-fat spreads and dairy products such as cottage cheese, low-fat yoghurts and half-fat Cheddar.
Ready meals and processed foods can also contain a lot of saturated fat, warns Azmina, so compare food labels.
Watch out for takeaways, too – especially if you have a fondness for doner kebabs: a recent study by the Local Authority Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) found that the average doner kebab contained 148 per cent of an adult’s daily saturated fat allowance. The unhealthiest kebab they tested contained a whopping 346 per cent of a woman's daily allowance.
Quick tips for getting fat-savvy
By making a few minor adjustments in your cooking and shopping habits, you can significantly reduce the amount of saturated fats you and your family consume each day, says Azmina. She suggests some simple ways to start cutting back:
- Buy lean meat and trim off visible fat. Remove the skin from poultry, and remember the thigh and leg pieces are highest in fat.
- Cook meat without adding fat by using methods like grilling, baking, steaming, boiling, poaching and braising.
- Avoid using the juices from roast meat for gravy.
- Cook with small amounts of unsaturated fats like olive oil, rapeseed oil and sunflower oil.
- Your body needs ‘good’ fats: aim to eat oily fish, such as salmon, herring and mackerel, once a week.
- Nuts, although high in fat, can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Recent research shows that a handful of peanuts or almonds can help to lower your risk of heart disease.