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Your guide to fats

With shelves groaning under the weight of different oils, fats and spreads, it can feel like a nutritional minefield. Here’s a breakdown of the nutritional winners and losers

Gone are the days where shopping for butter and oil meant a simple choice. These days, there’s a whole array of varieties and it can be confusing to know which is the best option.

Types of fat

There are actually just three major types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – and the shelves of butters, spreads and oils all fall into these categories. Most contain a mix of different types of fat but whichever is the largest component determines the category it falls into. So, although olive oil contains a little of both saturated and polyunsaturated fats, the lion’s share is monounsaturated fat, at around 73% – so that’s the category it falls into.1

Saturated fats

These fats are the ones to minimise because they are associated with increased cholesterol. When we eat too much (more than 20g a day)2, we increase our risk of obesity, which is linked to around 20 serious health conditions.3 Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, and they’re mainly found in animal products, for example butter, lard, dripping, suet and ghee, but they’re also in palm oil and coconut oil.4

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Polyunsaturated fats

Liquid at room temperature, these can help lower levels of your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats are made up of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids ¬– both of which are important for our hearts – but omega-3s also reduce inflammation and help our brains. We tend to get enough omega-6 oils in our diets – found in polyunsaturated margarine, sunflower oils and spreads, flaxseed oil, safflower oil, corn oil, sesame oil, plus soya oils and spreads.5 However, we need more omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are found in oily fish and in lesser amounts in things like flax oil. If you’re at risk of Type 2 diabetes, research shows swapping from saturated fats to polyunsaturated could slow the progression of type 2 diabetes.6

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Monounsaturated fats

This type of fat is also usually liquid at room temperature and found in olive oil and spreads, rapeseed oil and spreads, avocado oil, peanut oil and any spreads made from nuts.

Monounsaturated fats are the healthiest type of oil because they lower both total and bad cholesterol. However, unlike all other oils, they help maintain good HDL cholesterol.7 A 2015 study published in Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome also found that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats can help weight loss in obese people.8

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Trans fats

You'll probably have heard about these unhealthy oils, which are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil during processing to increase its shelf life, altering the composition of the fat.9 Trans fatty acids – also known as hydrogenated fats – raise levels of bad LDL cholesterol, reduce good HDL and increase inflammation in the body.10 The good news is that manufacturers have worked hard to reduce their levels in the UK, though they may still be in processed baked and fried goods.11 So avoid anything that says ‘hydrogenated vegetable fats or oils’ on the list of ingredients.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
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1. British Heart Foundation. Fats explained. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/healthy-eating/fats-explained
2. NHS Choices. Reference intakes explained. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-reference-intakes-on-food-labels/
3. NHS Choices. Overview: obesity. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/
4. As Source 1
5. Medline Plus. Facts about polyunsaturated fats. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000747.htm
6. Science Daily. Eating polyunsaturated fats linked to slowing diabetes progress for some. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160321153926.htm
7. Healthy Food Guide. Different types of fat explained. Available from: https://www.healthyfood.co.uk/article/different-types-of-fat-explained/
8. Kaippert VC, et al. Effects of unsaturated fatty acids on weight loss, body composition and obesity related biomarkers. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4653532/
9. Healthline. Why Are Trans Fats Bad For You? The Disturbing Truth. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/why-trans-fats-are-bad
10. As above
11. Roe M, et al. Trans fatty acids in a range of UK processed foods. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23601386

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