Good fats, bad fats

With nearly 55 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men in the UK overweight, the diet industry’s big business these days. But it’s easy to be bamboozled by all trans fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. What does it all mean?

One of the most common misunderstandings is that all fats are bad for us. The truth is, our bodies need some fat in order to be healthy. But put simply, some fats are ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’. The key is knowing the difference between them, which foods to find them in and how much you should be eating of each type.

Bad fats
Apart from the obvious side effect of making you put on weight, eating too many ‘bad’ fats can lead to other, nasty, problems. There are two main types of ‘bad’ fats – saturated fat and trans fats.

Saturated fat
Saturated fat generally comes from animal sources. It’s found in full-fat dairy products like cheese, whole milk, butter and hard margarine. It’s also found in fatty meat and meat products and many shop-made items containing these things. Most cakes and biscuits, for example, contain high levels of saturated fat.

Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol, which is a major risk factor for heart disease – the UK’s number one killer. Despite this, the government reckon 88 per cent of men and 83 per cent of women consume too much saturated fat.

The easiest way to cut down on saturated fat is to switch to low-fat versions of dairy products, trim fat off meat before eating it and limit cakes, biscuits and pastry to occasional treats.

Trans fats
Trans fats are chemically altered vegetable oils. They are produced artificially in a process called hydrogenation which turns liquid oil into solid fat.

They’re found in thousands of processed foods from cakes and biscuits to ready meals. Food companies like using trans fats because they’re cheap and help give products a long shelf life.

Trans fats have been linked to high cholesterol, heart attacks and strokes. In the USA, companies now have to clearly label foods that contain trans fats but no such law exists yet in the UK. This might explain why nearly 71 per cent of people who took part in a recent survey conducted by Flora had no idea which foods to avoid to reduce their intake of trans fats.

You may, however, find some products that state they are ‘virtually trans fat free’ or ‘do not contain hydrogenated vegetable oils’. In general, though, unless they are labelled otherwise, it’s best to assume most processed foods include trans fats, especially cakes, biscuits and ready meals.

Another major source of trans fats is butter. Over the years, debate has raged about whether butter or margarine-style spreads are better for you. But on this issue, the facts are clear. Butter contains about three per cent trans fats while olive spreads typically contain 0.1 – 1.6 per cent trans fats. Many low-fat and sunflower spreads contain even less, sometimes as little as 0.05 per cent.

To limit the number of trans fats you eat, cut back on processed foods and try to eat lots of fresh foods including fruit and veg instead. Keep butter to a minimum and try a low-fat spread on your toast instead.