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Saturated Fats – Truth vs Myth

Posted on: 20th October 2015

Posted in: Healthy Eating, Topical Nutrition Issues, Uncategorized

Last week’s blog was all about trans fats, and as promised, this post is about saturated fats. Now before I start, it’s important to point out that this post is not about demonising particular nutrients  – there is a place for everything in a balanced diet. Often, however, if you cut down on total fats, you end up replacing them with other nutrients, like too much carbohydrate, which can have its own problems.When it comes to saturated fats, it’s important to consider replacing these with small amounts of healthier ‘monounsaturated’ and ‘polyunsatured’ fats, which I will cover in my next blog. I thought I’d do this post as a series of fat ‘myths’, so here goes:

Myth #1: new research has shown that saturated fats do not affect heart health

Sources of saturated fat include butter, coconut oil and the visible fat and skin on meat. There are lots of other sources too, such as cream, cheese, pastry, cakes and biscuits. Eating too much saturated fat increases your cholesterol levels. Having too much cholesterol in the blood increases your risk of heart disease. Much of the confusion around saturated fats is due to a recent study (Chowdhury et al) which was published in 2014, which found no evidence that saturated fat increased the risk of heart disease, or that unsaturated fats like oily fish had protective effects. However, despite this and other new studies, this new ‘evidence’ is not strong enough to change current recommendations about saturated fat. There is over 35 years of research showing the link between saturated fat and heart disease, which is not something that should be dismissed quickly.

Myth #2: saturated fat does not affect weight gain

Whilst saturated fat specifically is not linked to weight gain, intake of total fat is. Per gram, fat contains over double the calories as carbohydrate and protein. If you’re trying to lose weight, the focus should be on reducing total fat intake, whilst also addressing portion sizes and intake of foods and drinks high in sugar. High fat (low carbohydrate) diets are very fashionable at the moment, where supporters of this approach advocate no limit on saturated fat. Any diet which cuts out a food group will generally cause you to lose weight, simply through taking on less calories. Whilst fat is high in calories per gram, it also fills you up quickly. I would not recommend this approach, because you could miss out on key micronutrients and fibre, and also we simply don’t know the long term effects (e.g. on heart health) of following such diets.

Myth #3: butter is healthier than reduced fat spreads

Whilst everything is ok in moderation, and a small amount of butter will be fine, we shouldn’t be promoting large amounts of butter, or that butter is fine to consume as you like. Butter is much higher in total fat and saturated fat than reduced fat spreads. The main argument for butter promoters is that it’s a ‘natural’ product, and that margarines and spreads contain trans fats due to being hydrogenated. However, manufacturers of margarines and reduced fat spreads stopping hydrogenating their products back in the 90s, so this argument no longer stands. Butter however, still has 3-4% trans fats, as well as a whole lot more saturated fat. Before swapping your butter for a reduced fat spread, consider the amount you currently use through the day . If you just use a scraping of butter on toast for breakfast, that should be fine from a health perspective. However, if you’re having it on toast, in a sandwich at lunch and to make up mashed potato at dinner, consider switching to a lower fat spread Portion size is key! If you’re trying to lose weight, the calories in butter and also in butter imitation spreads (e.g. clover, lurpak, I can’t believe it’s not butter, utterly butterly) stack up, so it’s best to consider a reduced fat version. I personally use a light olive spread – supermarket own no frills brand is fine! And save the real thing for a special occasion, such as dinner with friends.

Myth #4: coconut oil is better than other oils in cooking

Coconut oil – another ‘trendy’ food which is constantly touted as having a range of health effects by advocates in the media, despite the lack of evidence to support it. Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, and whilst this is from a plant source, rather than an animal source, there’s no evidence to suggest it’s really good or you. Coconut oil has a relatively low ‘smoking point’ – this is the point at which the oil smokes continuously when cooked at high temperature (you’ve probably seen this when frying an egg and forgetting about the oil – or is that only me??!) When oils reach smoking point, trans fats are made at the high temperature (as per my previous blog, you want to avoid trans fats!). The smoking point of coconut oil is around 170 degrees C, so it is actually not very good for high temperature cooking, like frying. Oils like canola, grapeseed, sunflower and safflower oil are much better for high temperature cooking – their smoking points vary between 204 – 232 degrees C. Extra virgin olive oil is good for a little drizzling on a salad. Either way, it’s best to try not to let your oil reach smoking point, by cooking slowly, and grilling meats instead of frying them. This will prevent trans fats (bad fats) from forming.

Practical tips on how to cut down on saturated fat:

  • Choose foods low and medium in saturated fat or ‘saturates’ (less than 5g per 100g product) instead of high on food labels. Look out for colour coded labels; choose green (low) and amber (medium), instead of red (high).
  • Use lower fat mince in bolognaise sauces – usually standard mince has around 20-25g of fat per 100g, whereas a leaner version may have less than 15g per 100g
  • Use reduced fat spread and skimmed/semi-skimmed milk in cottage pie/fish pie toppings or mashed potato. The addition of an egg can make your mashed potato creamier without the need to add lots of extra fat
  • If you’re making your own pizzas, avoid processed fatty meats like pepperoni and bacon; instead use chicken, prawns and vegetables
  • Remove all visible fat from meats, including bacon rind, pork chop fat, and the skin of chicken and poultry
  • Grill meat rather than frying it, so that the fat can drip away
  • If you do fry foods, cook slowly to avoid the ‘smoking point’
  • Cheese reduced fat versions of cheese, e.g. half fat cheddar, reduced fat cream cheese, mozarella. Brie and Edam are naturally lower in fat than cheddar. Alternatively using an extra mature cheddar means you will use less to get the flavour you’re used to
  • Choose yoghurts that are reduced fat and reduced sugar (often yoghurts labelled as ‘low fat’ are high in sugar, so always check the label)
  • Choose dry or tomato based curries, e.g. tandoori  / bhuna when ordering from the Indian takeaway (rather than creamy sauces like masala, korma and passanda)
  • Choose stir-fried or steamed dishes from Chinese or Thai selections, rather than sweet and/or creamy dishes. Curries which contain coconut milk or coconut cream are particularly high in saturated fat
  • Consider your snacks – cakes and biscuits will contain saturated fat, where fruit with yoghurt dip, or oatcakes with hummous would be a better choice, and will probably keep you fuller for longer too

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