Fat is one of the three essential macronutrients, and just like carbs and protein, some foods provide healthier sources than others. We're looking at why including fat in your diet is important, the best foods to eat, and discussing fat and exercise.
Despite having a bad reputation, fat is an essential nutrient in our diets. It is a rich source of energy, and it's the most energy-dense nutrient at 9kcal/gram, compared to 4kcal/gram for carbs and protein. It provides us with, and helps us absorb, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and gives us essential fatty acids. These are vital fats we can't make in our body and have to get from our diet.
There are different types of fat – the chemical structure and type determine the effect it has on our bodies. Saturated fats have been linked to increased blood cholesterol and risk of developing heart disease and stroke. This type of fat causes fatty deposits to build up inside our arteries, which over time, can restrict the blood flow causing high blood pressure. If small fragments of the fatty deposits become dislodged, they can be carried in the bloodstream around the body with the potential to cause a blockage in the heart (heart attack) or brain (stroke). Saturated fat is the predominant fat in foods such as fatty cuts of meat, cheese, coconut milk, fried foods, cakes and biscuits.
The other problem with fat is that we tend to eat too much of it! Fat carries flavour in foods meaning it tastes good – so there is no wonder we overindulge. The combination of fat and sugar in foods is an exceptionally moreish combination. And excess calories leads to weight gain, which can then increase the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
But it's not all bad news when it comes to fat! Unsaturated fats are super important in helping to maintain healthier blood cholesterol levels – which is why you should include these in your diet and choose them over foods containing saturated fat.
The government guidance on fat is that we should be aiming to have less than 35% of our total calories from fat, and of that less than 11% from saturated fats – these are the targets the Well Balanced goal sets you in the app (you are put on this when you sign up).
When we are trying to lose weight, fat is an excellent nutrient to cut back on as it is the most energy-dense (9 kcals/gram). So reducing fat has twice the calorie saving as reducing protein or carbs (4 kcals/gram). However, it's essential to include some fat in your diet, so think about portions sizes and aim to switch to more unsaturated fats where you can.
If you feel you want to reduce the amount of fat in your diet, Nutracheck does have a Lower Fat goal. Our nutritionists have set this to reduce your fat intake from 35% to 25% of total calories but still ensure a healthy level.
Fat is made up of small molecules called fatty acids, some of which are essential for our health. Different types of fatty acids are classified as saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated, depending on their chemical structure.
For the chemistry lovers out there – it's all down to double bonds. Saturated fats don't have any – this means they are usually solid. Unsaturated fats have one double bond (mono) or more than one (poly) – which means they are generally liquids. It's this structural difference in fats that directly influence their health effects.
Unsaturated fats are usually associated with positive health benefits, whereas saturated fats can have a negative impact. There are a couple of reasons why fatty acids affect our health:
Food that has fat in it usually contains a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. We classify it based on which type of fat it has most of. Butter contains mostly saturated fats, so this is classed as a saturated fat. Olive oil contains a majority of monounsaturated fats, so this is an unsaturated fat. Current dietary advice is to cut down on saturated fats and increase mono and polyunsaturated fats – for health benefits in terms of cardiovascular risk.
What this looks like in your diet means having less solid fats, e.g. butter, lard, meat fats, and swapping for liquid fats, e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, oily fish, avocado, nuts and nut oils.
At Nutracheck, we don't say 'never' eat these foods as nothing is banned, but remember it's all about balance. Think carefully about how you can adapt the foods you enjoy to cut back on calories and reduce the saturated fat content. Three ways to do this:
The foods listed below contain saturated fats – many are the type we find very 'moreish'. A small portion is okay, but it might be best to avoid it if you find it hard to stop.
Fatty cuts of meat, e.g. pork, lamb, streaky bacon, sausages
SWAP for leaner meats – chicken, turkey, lean beef. Trim off all visible fat before cooking. Eat back bacon or bacon medallions. Choose reduced-fat sausages.
Pastries & pies
EAT SMALLER PORTIONS – choose lattice topped or filo pastry pies; avoid suet pastry pies.
Cheese – hard cheese, especially
CHOOSE REDUCED FAT VERSIONS – there are many lower-fat varieties available. OR buy a strong cheddar, so you need to use less to get the flavour. Grate your cheese smaller to make it go further. Read more here: How do you grate yours?
CHOOSE REDUCED FAT VERSIONS – you could be saving around 90 calories per 100ml.
EAT SMALLER PORTIONS – or don't keep in the house (out of sight, out of mind!). If you buy these products, choose individually portioned. Enjoy occasionally.
SWAP to dark chocolate and limit portions. Buy fun-size chocolate bars or weigh it out into portioned food bags.
SWAP to a different cooking method – grill or oven bake. Fry using a 1-cal spray.
SWAP to homemade versions. Check out our fakeaway recipes:
Pizza (especially with meat-based toppings)
SWAP to homemade versions or lower calorie supermarket options. Check out some of our faves: Perfect pizzas.
We asked fitness expert Helen to share a few body fat related questions she often gets asked by clients.
Is it true that muscle weighs more than fat?
No! A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat (of course!), it's the density that is different. In other words, a pound of fat will take up more space than a pound of muscle, meaning someone with more muscle will look 'tighter'. Comparing volume occupied, you'd get more muscle than fat into the same volume, as it's denser. If you then weighed the two, the muscle would be heavier than fat as you have more of it – which is where the confusing statement of 'muscle weighs more than fat' comes from!
This is why bodyweight alone is not a good indication of how fit and healthy you are or how you look. Two people can weigh the same, but one has a higher percentage of fat and the other a higher percentage of muscle.
High body fat brings a range of health conditions such as heart disease and high blood pressure. A high percentage of muscle means strength, a firm body, increased resting metabolic rate – muscle burns calories while you're resting and the development of strong bones.
Keeping track of weight is a helpful measure, but also use body measurements and progress pictures to track your progress.
What is the best exercise to help lose body fat?
Unfortunately, there is no specific exercise that will result in losing body fat! To lose body fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit – you need to be consistently consuming fewer calories than you expend or expending more calories than you consume. This can be done by eating less, increasing your physical activity levels or, ideally, combining the two.
It's essential to include a form of weight training to increase muscle mass – bodyweight if you're very new to exercise, progressing to using weights as you get stronger. Muscle is a very active tissue and will burn calories while you're at rest. It also helps with the development of strong, healthy bones. Don't worry about getting bulky – building muscle is complex, and the 'body building' look that so many people associate with weight training takes a great deal of time and effort!
It's also essential to get your daily steps in – 10,000 a day ideally. Try and build activity into your everyday life – take the stairs rather than a lift, park further away from the supermarket rather than right outside – these forms of exercise count significantly towards calories expenditure.
Do a form of exercise that raises your heart rate – brisk walking, swimming, running, cycling, exercise classes. These are all important for cardiovascular fitness as well as a way to burn calories.
Finally, choose an exercise you're going to stick to and enjoy – for example, don't force yourself to run if you hate it just because you think it's the best way to burn calories. You'll eventually find yourself looking for every excuse to avoid it!
Can I spot reduce fat in areas of my body, e.g. my stomach?
Sadly not! Where you lose weight from first is primarily determined by your genetics, just as they control how your body fat is distributed in your body (a quick look at your family will give you an idea!). Remember that regardless of how and where your body is 'programmed' to store fat, being in a consistent calorie deficit will result in losing it. It's just that some areas may be slightly more stubborn than others and take a little longer!
If I want to tone up/get lean, do I need to eat a low-fat diet?
Not necessarily. A toned and lean look is achieved by building muscle and losing body fat. To lose body fat, you need to be in a consistent calorie deficit. This doesn't have to be achieved by cutting out or eating a very low-fat diet, healthy fats are essential for the body and many of its functions – just make sure they are not over consumed. No food group has to be cut out to lose fat. To build muscle, you will need to make sure you're eating enough lean protein, ideally 2g per 1kg of your goal body weight, as well as resistance training (using weights) and getting enough rest between workouts.
Low fat isn't always healthier. Sometimes the fat is replaced by sugar. *TRUE*
Just because a product says it's low fat doesn't always mean it's the best choice. Always look at the label of the product you're replacing to see if it is an all-around healthier choice.
For some foods such as milk and dairy foods, low fat often is healthier, e.g. skimmed milk has less fat than whole milk; low-fat yogurt has less fat than whole milk yogurt. But check other ingredients too. Is the sugar content higher than the standard product? Think about the overall health benefits – is it better to just have a smaller portion? Food labels are your friend, so look at the traffic lights on the front of the pack and the detailed nutrition panel on the reverse to check your facts.
Thinking about fat in the body (not diet), is it true that when you lose weight, you don't actually lose fat cells, they just shrink? *FICTION*
Fat cells are like any other cells in our body – constantly changing. But weight loss is indeed a combination of water loss and the loss of fat from our bodies. The fat cells can expand and grow when there is lots of excess fat requiring storage, and in the same way, they release the fat and shrink when the fat is needed for energy elsewhere in the body (when we are in a calorie deficit). There is some evidence to show that fat cells don't disappear, but the fat cells' size can vary.
If I follow a low-fat diet, I will lose weight on my bum and hips. (thinking Rosemary Conley's Hip & Thigh Diet – back in the day!) *FICTION*
Unfortunately, where we store our fat is down to genetics. Ladies tend to store fat around the bum, thighs and lower abdomen, whereas men tend to store fat in the abdomen – often described as 'apple' and 'pear' shapes. The only way to lose fat and tone a particular area of the body is through a combination of weight loss and exercise. Following a low-fat diet can help with calorie deficit, then working the muscles in the area you want to change can help with toning up.
Although some fats are good for you (unsaturated), you should still be concerned about exceeding your fat intake. *TRUE*
Remember that fat is the most energy-dense nutrient at 9 kcal per gram, so although some fats are healthier than others, it is still important to limit the total amount of fat in your diet and not exceed the guidance on fat intake. Changing the balance of fat in your diet is vital – so cutting back on the saturated fat sources in your diet and having more unsaturated sources – but still keeping within the set limits for fat intake.
Coconut oil is healthier than olive oil *FICTION*
Coconut oil has enjoyed an explosion in popularity over the past few years, mainly down to its use by celebrity chefs, but it is essential to remember that coconut oil is predominantly a saturated fat. That's why it is solid at room temperature and why you have to spoon it rather than pour it. As we know, saturated fats are the ones to cut back on. Olive oil, on the other hand, is predominantly monounsaturated fat and better for heart health. Coconut oil is also much more expensive than other vegetable oils such as olive and rapeseed oil. Remember, with any oil, to use it sparingly. Spray oils are a great way to limit the amount you use.
And on the subject of oil, our nutritionist has also answered a couple of fat-related commonly asked questions…
Is cooking with oil at high temperatures harmful to our health?
There has been speculation that heating oil at high temperatures can lead to changes in fatty acid compositions and ultimately make fats less healthy. Although some research has supported this, there is currently no evidence that cooking at high temperatures will significantly impact heart health. It is more important to look at the type and quantity of fats overall in the diet.
What about 'hydrogenated' fats?
You may have read about hydrogenated fats or trans fats and a connection with heart disease. These fats do naturally occur in tiny amounts, but they are predominantly chemically manufactured fats. They are unsaturated fats that have been adapted to act like a saturated fat, so they are more stable during cooking and easier to include in foods cooked at high temperatures like deep-fried foods. However, we now know that these fats harm health, and there are now strict limits on how much trans fat can be used in UK foods. The good news is that very few foods in the UK contain trans fats, as the majority have been removed.
What do you think of Butter Coffee?
Butter or 'Bulletproof' Coffee has grown in popularity from its beginning in the US and is marketed to solve hunger and weight loss. The principle is that a shot of coffee mixed with coconut oil-based fat and butter helps to alleviate hunger, keeping you fuller for longer and can be used as a breakfast replacer.
I have three issues I don't agree with. Firstly the evidence is very patchy to support any of the claims being made. Secondly, it is based on adding saturated fat into the diet (through butter and coconut oil). And thirdly, it suggests that a butter coffee should replace your breakfast – meaning you miss out on other super important nutrients such as wholegrains, fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
In my view, you are better off enjoying your regular coffee and having a wholesome breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit and yogurt to start your day.
Is it better to eat little real butter or use a reduced-fat spread?
It's really up to you and what you prefer. If you like the taste of butter, then have a little bit when you fancy it. But think about portions and frequency. If you are less concerned about taste, then swapping to reduced-fat or plant-based spread is an option – these tend to be slightly lower in calories and often are richer in unsaturated fats. But it all comes down to the amount you have, your taste preference and whether you want to swap.
Are liquids fats better for you than solid fats?
Yes, the simple answer is that liquid fats tend to be predominantly unsaturated fats, whereas solid fats tend to be saturated fat. Having more saturated fat in your diet increases the risk of raised blood cholesterol, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
Is it dangerous to cut your fat intake too low?
Yes – we need to have some fat in our diets. We have fat in every cell in our bodies that need to be replenished daily. Fat is an essential energy source and provides us with essential fatty acids (which we cannot make in our bodies) and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Without any fat, we are unable to source these crucial nutrients.
Nutracheck co-founder Rachel Hartley, BSc (Hons) Food & Nutrition is passionate about food and diet. Rachel's philosophy is providing accurate, up-to-date calorie information to help people make the right food choices.