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The FACTS about FAT

There’s no getting away from it – fat is The FACTS about FATpacked with calories! But as it’s an integral part of many foods, top nutritionist and obesity expert DR SUSAN JEBB has this guide to help you make the best choices

If you are trying to lose weight, cutting down on fat, any kind of fat, is one of the most important steps to take. Every gram of fat contains nine calories, more than twice that of protein or carbohydrate. Even a thin scraping of butter will double the calories of a slice of bread. Likewise, adding a knob of butter to baked or mashed potatoes won’t make you feel fuller but it will add another 100 calories. Try quark or ricotta instead. But, as you can’t avoid it completely, here’s the low-down on the different fats.

Saturated fat

This poses a specific risk to health as it increases blood cholesterol levels. People with diets high in saturated fat – which occurs predominately in animal-based foods, specifically meat and dairy products – have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The average adult gets 13 per cent of their total energy intake from saturated fat. Experts recommend a maximum of 10 per cent. Removing all visible fat when preparing meat and choosing low-fat dairy products will reduce intakes of saturated fat and help to cut calories.

Trans fats

These occur naturally in small amounts in animal fats, but are also produced commercially as part of a manufacturing process called hydrogenation. The process causes a change in the chemical structure of the fat that alters the way it is metabolised in the body. Studies show that trans fat is more harmful to health than saturated fat. The good news is that average intakes in the UK are relatively low, and most margarines have been reformulated to cut trans fat. But they are still found in many pies, pastries, cakes and biscuits, giving you another good reason to cut down on these calorie-laden foods.

Monounsaturated fat

Olive oil is the most widely consumed oil rich in monounsaturated fat. It is a classic part of the Mediterranean diet and this has lent it an aura of health and vitality. The fact is, when used in place of saturated fat, monounsaturated fats do decrease the risk of heart disease by altering the profile of fat in the blood. But it’s important to use it as a substitute for saturated fat – in place of butter, for example – and not as an extra drizzle of oil on your meal. Olive oil’s distinct taste may bring back memories of Greek Islands, so it’s easy to forget it has just as many calories as lard! But if your weight is under control, it’s a good choice.

Polyunsaturated fat

These became known as ‘polywotsits’ as a result of an ad campaign in the 1970s, which persuaded large numbers of people to switch from butter to margarine. It is mostly derived from vegetable sources and, when used to replace saturated fat, can significantly reduce blood cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of heart disease. There are two groups of polyunsaturated fat – the omega-6 and omega-3 families. In recent years, there has been a major rise in the proportion of omega-6 consumed relative to omega-3. Experts are concerned that this may be creating a metabolic imbalance in the body. Research is at an early stage, but it’s worth considering choosing a vegetable oil rich in omega-3, such as rapeseed, instead of the omega-6 rich sunflower or corn oil.

Fish oils

These are a special kind of omega-3 fat also known as EPA or DHA. They are very powerful metabolically and good for health, even in small quantities. Fish is the richest source of these oils, but they are also found in smaller quantities in meat. A number of other foods are now promoted as containing omega-3 oils. These include eggs, whose composition has been changed by giving different food to hens, and yogurts, where omega-3 fats have been added. Eating just two portions of oily fish a week, or the equivalent omega-3 from other sources, can reduce the level of triglycerides in the blood, a risk factor for heart disease. In people who have had a heart attack, fish oils can reduce the risk of a second attack. Claims for other health benefits are less well established. There are reports of improvement in the symptoms of arthritis at relatively high doses, and recent suggestions that fish oil can increase the IQ and reduce behaviour problems in children are hotly debated. But it makes sense for the whole family to eat oily fish as part of a healthy diet.

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