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What is Fat?

Fat is high in calories and eating too much can contribute to overWeight. Visible fat, like the fat on meats or in fat spreads is easy to spot, but there is also a lot of fat hidden in foods like pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some meat products like sausages and burgers and their vegetarian alternatives. Checking the labels and choosing lower fat versions whenever possible is a good way to reduce fat in the diet.

There's no need to remind, eating a lot of fat, particularly saturated fat, is unhealthy. Most of us should aim to reduce the proportion of saturated fats (no more than 10% of your total energy from saturated fats) in our diet, and also the total fat content of our diet. Fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, and, because it is so rich in calories, makes it much easier to become obese.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and come from meat and dairy products. Cutting the fat off meat and eating lower-fat versions of dairy foods such as semi-skimmed milk, yogurt instead of cream, etc - will help to achieve this.

Unsaturated fats come mainly from vegetable and fish sources and they tend to be liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are divided into two types - monounsaturates and polyunsaturates. They are both healthier than saturated fats. Try to replace some of the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated ones - replacing butter with olive oil, meat with fish.

Most of us need to increase our intake of omega 3 fatty acids. It helps to protect us against heart disease. Remember, eating a portion of oily fish (eg sardines, mackerel, salmon) every week is a good way to meet your omega 3 requirements.

Cholesterol is another type of fat, mostly made by the body in the liver. It is known that high levels of cholesterol in the blood increase the risk of heart disease. Certain foods (including eggs and offal) are high in cholesterol. However, dietary cholesterol does not contribute much to blood cholesterol in most people. Saturated fats contribute more to blood cholesterol, so it's more important to reduce these.

There are various types of fat, however, and they are not all bad. As was said before, there are three most important types of fat: saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat.

Fats are classified by their "saturation" - a term that refers to the amount of hydrogen atoms attached to the molecules of fat. Many foods contain all three types in different proportions and, together, the three different types are known as "total fat". However, each type has a different effect on the body.

Saturated fats are completely "saturated", in other words each fat molecule is covered in hydrogen atoms. Saturated fat is the "villain" of the three types of fat because it is known to increase health risks if too much is eaten over a long period of time. In particular, it has the effect of increasing blood cholesterol levels which, in turn, can lead to heart disease.

Saturated fat is found in meat and meat products, dairy products, coconut oil. The easiest way to check whether a fat is saturated or not is to see how hard, soft or liquid it is at room temperature. Saturated fat goes hard at room temperature. For example, the hard white substance that you can see in the pan after cooking foods such as roast beef, lamb, and bacon is the saturated fat that has melted out of the meat and then solidified. Hard cheese is the same. Many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps also contain saturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats are also not "saturated" with hydrogen atoms - each fat molecule has space for one more hydrogen atom only. Generally, monounsaturated fats have been thought to be neutral in terms of their effect on health. However, some experts now believe that they do have health benefits, for example, reducing heart disease risk. The so-called "Mediterranean diet" is rich in monounsaturated fat.

Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, olive oil, groundnut oil, nuts, and avocados.

Polyunsaturated fats are not "saturated" with hydrogen atoms - there are a number of spaces around each fat molecule where hydrogen atoms could be attached. This type of fat is highly beneficial to health, especially fats from fish, known as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These helps prevent heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels, help to reduce the symptoms of arthritis, other joint problems and certain skin diseases. They are liquid when at room temperature.

These fats are found in oily fish (for example mackerel, salmon, trout, herring and sardines) and soft polyunsaturated spreads. Other sources include cooking oils such as safflower, grapeseed, sunflower and corn.

How much fat should we eat?

All types of fat are energy dense: 9 kcalories per gram. In fact fat (in all its forms) contains more kcalories than any other food source. Because of this it is easy to consume too many calories from fat and this, in turn, may contribute to Weight problems.

The current recommendation is that we should take in no more than 33 percent of our total energy (kcalories) from total fat. Breaking this down further, saturated fat should account for no more than 10 percent of our total energy (calories) because of its harmful effects on health. The rest of the calories from fat should come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats because these are more beneficial to health.

What does this mean in practical terms?
If you are eating 2,000 calories a day, 33 percent amounts to 73 grams of total fat. If your daily calorie intake is 1,500 calories, 33 percent amounts to 55 grams of total fat.

Fortunately, most food labels do contain information about the number of grams of fat in the product.

Reduce the fat in your diet

  • use semi-skimmed / skimmed milk instead of whole milk,
  • switch to a low-fat spread instead of butter / margarine,
  • try low-fat varieties of dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt,
  • eat more chicken and fish and less red or fatty meats,
  • choose lean cuts of meat and trim off all the excess fat,
  • grill, bake, steam or microwave food rather than frying it,
  • avoid high-fat snacks such as crisps, biscuits, cakes and pastries
  • choose polyunsaturated cooking oil or monounsaturated olive oil.
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