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Dietary fat recommendations


HEART UK dietary fat recommendations for lipid management and the evidence behind them.

Take home messages

  • Reduce all foods rich in saturated fats and replace them with foods that contain more unsaturated fat.
    • Switch from animal fats to unsaturated vegetable oils e.g., rapeseed, sunflower or olive oil and spreads made from them
    • Avoid coconut and palm fat - these are exceptionally high in saturated fat
    • Reduce red meat and avoid processed meats - fully or partly replaces with beans, nuts, seeds
    • Switch to lower fat dairy options or fortified plant-based alternatives.
  • Watch the quantities of fat consumed, as all fats, whether saturated or unsaturated, are high in calories.
  • Avoid foods made with partially hydrogenated fats.
  • Eat 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily.
  • Dietary cholesterol should not be the focus for primary care advice as most individuals consume well below the recommended daily limit of 300mg/day and saturated fat intake is far greater and more potent at elevating blood LDL cholesterol.
    • For individuals with FH or at high risk of CVD, dietary cholesterol intakes should be limited to no more than 300mg/day.

Reducing saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated fats

Dietary fat recommendations for heart health have been reviewed by a number of expert bodies and professional organisations1-6 with consistent findings:

  • Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA) are the dietary factor with the greatest impact on Low Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (LDL-C).
  • SFA should be substituted with unsaturated fatty acids (UFA) – polyunsaturated (PUFA) and monounsaturated (MUFA).
  • Reducing SFA per se, or substituting with PUFA, MUFA, or a mixture of the two reduces total and LDL-C.
  • Substituting SFA with UFA has no adverse effect on HDL, but simply reducing SFA or substituting with carbohydrate, reduces High Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (HDL-C).
  • Trans fatty acids (TFA) have a similar effect on LDL-C, however, while SFA increase HDL-C), TFA decreases it.
    • TFA can be produced industrially by the partial hydrogenation of vegetable and fish oils, but also occur naturally in meat and dairy products from ruminant animals (e.g. cattle, sheep, goats, camels). Industrially-produced TFA can be found in baked and fried foods, pre-packaged snacks and food. TFA from ruminant animals are considered to be of less concern at the typical levels consumed in the diet7,8.
    • In the UK, voluntary measures by the food industry have resulted in mean TFA intakes in adults and children significantly decreasing. Current intake at 0.5%9 of food energy is below the recommended maximum for both the UK (<2% of dietary energy)10 and internationally (<1% of dietary energy)11.
In the 2019 review of the evidence examining the impact of saturated fat on health, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) concluded that reducing saturated fat lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD), lowers total, LDL-C and HDL-C and improves indicators of glycaemic control. Reducing population averages of SFA from current intake to no more than about 10% of total dietary energy would result in health benefits to the population3.

Mechanism of action

Research suggests that eating too much SFA impacts the LDL receptors, preventing them from taking up LDL-C from the blood and into the liver to be broken down. The resulting effect is a build-up of LDL-C in the blood12.

Why the confusion?

Despite the universal consensus, the question of fat around CVD risk is hotly debated with claims suggesting dietary recommendations to reduce SFA intake have been over exaggerated. Are fats the villains, neutral or the heroes? And which fats have different effects?

The recent controversy has arisen following a couple of recent analyses failing to find an association between SFA and CHD risk13,14. However, these findings can be explained by:

  • A lack of control over the replacement calories. When saturated fat is reduced, it’s important to consider the substitute nutrient. A Cochrane systematic review of 15 randomised controlled trials, involving almost 60 000 participants, found greater reductions (27%) in CVD events in studies that replaced SFA with PUFA than in studies where SFA was replaced with carbohydrate or protein, where there was little evidence of any effect4. Replacing SFA with UFA, and especially PUFA, leads to a reduction in serum LDL-C levels15.
  • The inclusion of older studies using spreads with higher TFA content. Other limitations of these types of meta-analyses include the use of cohort studies (which show associations but not cause and effect); the differing effects of individual SFA on LDL-C; and the effects of SFA from different foods - the food matrix and nutrients may interact with SFA resulting in different outcomes.

Individual SFAs & their impact on blood lipids

Not all SFA raise cholesterol – Lauric (12:0), Myristic (14:0) and Palmitic (16:0) Acids raise total, LDL-C and HDL-C, while stearic acid (18:0) is considered to have a neutral affect. However replacing stearic acid with unsaturated fat lowers LDL-C. Read the WHO's detailed overview of the impacts of different SFA on cholesterol4

Foods containing SFA usually comprise a combination of SFA (see right), and so their individual differences on serum cholesterol should not affect dietary recommendations to lower overall saturated fat intake and replace with unsaturated fat.

Omega-3 fats

PUFA exist in the n-3 or n-6 isomeric configuration. Both isomers  are essential nutrients and have different biological effects. α-Linolenic acid, a dietary n-3 PUFA, is present in soybean and rapeseed oil, walnuts and in very small amounts in some green vegetables. Fish oil contains the very-long-chain n-3 PUFA, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.

Observational evidence indicates that consumption of fish (at least twice a week) and vegetable foods rich in n-3 fatty acids is associated with lower risk of CVD death and stroke but has no major effects on plasma lipoprotein metabolism at this intake5,16. However high-dose prescription n-3 supplemental forms may be used to treat hypertriglyceridaemia.

Public health guidance is to eat two portion of fish a week, one of which should be oily, to achieve the SACN recommendations of 0.45g of long chain Omega 3 fatty acids a day16. While a recent Cochrane review has questioned the heart health benefits of fish oil supplements17, the dietary advice for fish consumption remains.

Dietary cholesterol

Although there is a positive dose-dependent relationship between the intake of dietary cholesterol with blood LDL-C concentrations, the main dietary determinant of blood LDL-C concentrations is SFA intake. As such, public health recommendations do not provide guidance on dietary cholesterol intakes. A good overview on the effects of dietary cholesterol on lipids can be found here.

NICE guidance for both ‘Familial Hypercholesterolaemia management’ and for ‘Cardiovascular disease: risk assessment and reduction, including lipid modification’, do provide advice for high risk individuals, recommending an intake of dietary cholesterol less than 300 mg/day. As a nation our average intake of dietary cholesterol is below this threshold18.

All animal foods contain some cholesterol, so by cutting down on animal foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol intakes will also be reduced.

In 2019, the American Heart Association19 reviewed the evidence examining the relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood lipids, lipoproteins and cardiovascular disease risk. Meta-analyses of intervention studies generally find associations between cholesterol intakes that exceed current average levels with elevated total and LDL-C. However, the available evidence suggests that, within the context of healthy eating patterns, replacing SFA with UFA is expected to produce greater reductions in LDL-C than reducing dietary cholesterol alone.   Rather than provide a specific dietary cholesterol target, it is recommended to promote healthy eating patterns which emphasise fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy foods, lean protein sources, nuts, seeds and liquid vegetable oils. These eating patterns are inherently  low in cholesterol.

Current intakes versus recommendations

American Heart Association's extensive scientific review on dietary fats and CVD

Read it here


  1. François Mach, Colin Baigent, Alberico L Catapano, et al. (2019). 2019 ESC/EAS Guidelines for the management of dyslipidaemias: lipid modification to reduce cardiovascular risk: The Task Force for the management of dyslipidaemias of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) and European Atherosclerosis Society (EAS). Eur Heart Journal, ehz455,
  2. NICE guidance (CG181), Cardiovascular disease: risk assessment and reduction, including lipid modification
  3. SACN (2019). Saturated fats and health. At:
  4. Mensink, Ronald P. & World Health Organization (‎2016)‎. Effects of saturated fatty acids on serum lipids and lipoproteins: a systematic review and regression analysis. World Health Organization.
  5. Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association Circulation. 2017; 136:e1–e23. DOI: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510
  6. NICE guidance (CG71) Familial hypercholesterolaemia: identification and management
  7. Gayet-Boyer C, Tenenhaus-Aziza F, Prunet C et al. (2014). Is there a linear relationship between the dose of ruminant trans-fatty acids and cardiovascular risk markers in healthy subjects: results from a systematic review and meta-regression of randomised clinical trials. British J Nutrition;112:1914–22.
  8. de Souza RJ, Mente A, Maroleanu A et al. (2015) Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ;351:h3978.
  9. Roberts C, Steer T, Maplethorpe N et al. (2018) National Diet and Nutrition Survey Results from Years 7 and 8 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2014/2015 to 2015/2016). Public Health England: London.
  10. SACN (2018). Update on Trans Fatty Acids and Health. Available at:
  11. WHO (2018). REPLACE Trans Fat: An Action Package to Eliminate Industrially‐Produced Trans‐Fatty Acids. World Health Organization: Geneva. Available at:
  12. Maria Luz Fernandez, Kristy L. (2005). West, Mechanisms by which Dietary Fatty Acids Modulate Plasma Lipids. J Nutrition;135(9):2075-78.
  13. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB et al. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Amer J Clin Nutr;91:535–46.
  14. Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S et al. (2014). Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals Intern Medicine;160:398–406.
  15. Hooper L, Martin N, Abdelhamid A et al. (2015). Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 10: CD011737.
  16. Public Health England (2004). SACN Advice on Fish Consumption.
  17. Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, et al. (2018). Omega‐3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003177.
  18. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (2010) Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol
  19. Jo Ann S. Carson, Alice H. Lichtenstein, Cheryl A.M. Anderson, et al. (2019). Dietary Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation 140:00–00. DOI: 10.1161/CIR.000000000000074

Last updated: June 2024

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