There are different types of fat in the food we eat, and saturated fats are the type that raise blood cholesterol.
Many foods contain saturated fat, especially animal foods such as meat, butter and dairy products, and foods that are made with them, such as cakes and biscuits. They're also found in some plant foods including coconut oil and palm oil.
Cutting down on foods high in saturated fat and replacing them with foods higher in unsaturated fat can help improve cholesterol levels. For example, plant-based fat spreads and oils, oily fish, nuts and seeds.
How does saturated fat raise your cholesterol?
Cholesterol is made and broken down in the liver. Eating foods that have too much saturated fat, and too little unsaturated fat, changes the way the liver handles cholesterol.
Our liver cells have LDL receptors on them. When LDL cholesterol passes by in the blood, these receptors take the cholesterol out of the blood and into the liver to be broken down. Research suggests that eating too much saturated fat stops the receptors from working so well, and cholesterol builds up in the blood.
Foods high in saturated fats
- milk and white chocolate, toffee, cakes, puddings and biscuits
- pastries and pies
- fatty meat, such as lamb chops
- processed meat, such as sausages, burgers, bacon and kebabs
- butter, lard, ghee, dripping, margarine, goose fat and suet
- coconut and palm oils and coconut cream
- full fat dairy products such as cream, milk, yogurt, crème fraiche and cheese
Saturated fats are usually hard at room temperature, such as butter, the fat in meat, and coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are liquid, such as olive oil.
Many foods contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats. Try to choose foods with more unsaturated fat.
Coconut oils and saturated fat
Coconut oils have an image of being a healthy option. Some stories mention that they can raise your HDL cholesterol ("good cholesterol") but this is unlikely to be the case as they only contain a small amount of the type of fat raises HDL, known as 'MCTs'. More importantly, coconut oil is made up almost entirely of saturated fat. It contains even more saturated fat than butter, so is likely to cause the same health problems.
Coconut oil does have a lovely flavour and is excellent in Thai style curries but it is best to use it sparingly.
How much saturated fats should you eat?
About a third of our energy should come from fat. That’s about 70g for a woman and 90g for a man per day.
Saturated fats should make up no more than a third of this. That’s 20g for women and 30g for men.
To reach and maintain a healthy weight, keep an eye on your saturated fat and total fat intake. Use these tips to help you.
When you’re shopping, check the labels of products to see how much fat they contain and how much they will add to the daily maximum. Look at the total fat and the saturated fat. Saturated fat might be written as ‘sat fat’ or ‘saturates’.
- Choose foods that have more unsaturated than saturated fats.
- Go for foods that are labelled green or amber for saturated fat.
- Some foods that are high in fat such as oily fish, nuts, oils and spreads may be red for saturated fat. This is OK because these foods contain a higher proportion of the healthy unsaturated fats.
- Per 100g of food – low-fat is 3g or less and low saturated fat is 1.5g or less.
- Per 100g of food – high fat is 17.5g or more and high saturated fat is 5g or more.
Many foods have labels on the front of pack, making it easy to check the amount and type of fat they contain. If not, it should be on the back. When labels are colour-coded with red, amber and green, go for green and amber as much as possible.
Use the table as a guide for choosing healthy foods.
2. Compare products
Sometimes similar products contain very different amounts fat. Check a few options before you buy.
3. Bake, steam, grill or boil instead of frying
You can usually bake, steam, grill or boil foods instead of frying them. Use a small amount of healthy oil or fat spread made from vegetables or seeds. Avoid butter and other animal fats.
4. Make simple swaps
Have a look at the foods high in saturated fat and some healthier alternatives with these simple swaps.
5. Choose healthy snacks
Take a look at these ideas for healthy snacks, low in saturated fat.
6. Choose healthy options when eating out
If you eat out at restaurants or cafes regularly, you can check the nutrition information online or on the menus. Takeaways are often high in saturated fat so it's best to have these only occasionally, you can also ask what type of oil they use.