A guide to fats in food

We all need to eat some fat. Fat gives us energy and helps to transport vitamins around the body. But some types of fat are harmful. They can raise the level of bad cholesterol in your blood.

For more about diets and whether they work to help control bad cholesterol or increase good cholesterol, see Treating high cholesterol.

Here’s a quick guide to different types of fats, what foods you can find them in, and what effect they have on cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.


Type of fat Where it comes from Effect on levels of lipids in your blood
Saturated fats Butter, hard cheese, cream, ice cream, meat fat (lard), coconut oil, and palm oil Raises level of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called LDL) if eaten too much
Trans unsaturated fats (also known as trans-fatty acids) Hard margarine and full-fat margarine, fast food, pastries, and other baked goods (doughnuts, pastries, biscuits) especially ones that contain hydrogenated fats Raises level of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called LDL) if eaten too much
Polyunsaturated fats Sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn (maize) oil, and fish oils Oily fish (herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, trout, pilchards)
Monounsaturated fats Olive oil, walnut oil, rapeseed oil, groundnut (peanut) oil, and avocados Can lower level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides (bad lipids), and slightly raises level of good cholesterol (known as high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called HDL)
Omega-3 fats Oily fish (herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, trout, pilchards) Can lower level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides (bad lipids), and slightly raises level of good cholesterol (known as high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also called HDL)

Understanding Cholestrol

The term high cholesterol is a bit misleading, because there are two types of cholesterol.

If you’ve been told you have high cholesterol, it usually means you have more of the bad type and less of the good type. This may put you at higher risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

You won’t notice if you have too much bad cholesterol, because you won’t have any symptoms. The only way you can find out is to have a blood test.

There are two main kinds of cholesterol: good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) and bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol). Your doctor may also talk about total cholesterol and triglycerides.

Eating lots of saturated fats and trans fats can increase the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood. Saturated fats are found in foods such as meat, butter, and cream. Trans fats are found in biscuits, cakes, pastries, and fast food.

Too much bad cholesterol won’t cause any symptoms, but it can increase your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

You can lower your levels of bad cholesterol by changing what you eat, taking medicines, or both. This will lower your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

If you smoke, stopping smoking can increase the amount of good cholesterol in your blood, which can lower your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is found in every cell in your body. Only a small amount of the cholesterol in your body comes directly from food. Most is made in your liver from saturated fats that you eat.

We’ve all started to think that fats are bad for us, but the body needs some fats to work properly. For example, fats in food are a source of energy and some vitamins.

The blood flow becomes blocked as plaques build up in blood vessels.
The blood flow becomes blocked as plaques build up in blood vessels.

Types of fat

There are several different types of fat in the food we eat.

Saturated fats

Found in meat, pies, sausages, butter, and other dairy products. Your liver turns saturated fats into cholesterol. So, if you want to lower your cholesterol, you need to eat less saturated fat.

Unsaturated fats

These are divided into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. They are found in vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, corn oil, and olive oil.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These are types of polyunsaturated fat. These fats are found mainly in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring, and fresh (but not tinned) tuna. They can help make your blood less sticky and reduce the chances of a clot forming. So they may protect against a heart attack. Other ‘good’ unsaturated fats are found in leafy green vegetables, vegetable oils, and margarine.

Trans fats

These are solid fats found in biscuits, cakes, pastries, and fast food. Scientists think that your body deals with these fats in the same way as saturated fats. So, if you want to lower your cholesterol you should eat fewer trans fats.

You don’t need to remember all these names. All you need to remember is that saturated fats and trans fats may be harmful. Eating these tends to increase the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood.

To learn more, see A guide to fats in food.

Fats in the blood are called lipids. Cholesterol is a lipid. All the fats you eat are changed into a type of cholesterol or another group of lipids called triglycerides.

How cholesterol is carried around the body

Cholesterol can’t travel around the body by itself. It has to link up with other substances in the body called proteins to form particles called lipoproteins. There are several different types of lipoproteins in your blood. The two most important are called LDL and HDL.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This moves cholesterol from your liver through your blood to your body’s cells. LDL cholesterol is also called bad cholesterol. This is because it can build up in your blood vessels and this increases your risk of getting heart disease. The more LDL cholesterol there is in your blood, the greater your risk of getting heart disease. When doctors say you have high cholesterol, they mean you have a lot of bad (LDL) cholesterol in your blood.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This picks up any extra cholesterol from your body and takes it back to your liver. Because it clears cholesterol from your blood, it’s often called good cholesterol. The more good (HDL) cholesterol you have in your blood, the lower your risk of heart disease.

What happens if cholesterol is high?

If you have high cholesterol it means that the level of cholesterol in your blood is outside of the normal range. For example, you may have too much bad (LDL) cholesterol and not enough good (HDL) cholesterol.

If you have too much bad cholesterol in your blood it builds up to form fatty deposits or plaques along the inside of the blood vessels. These plaques clog up your blood vessels, making them narrower. This condition is called atherosclerosis. It is harder for blood to flow through narrowed blood vessels and this puts you at increased risk of heart disease.

Sometimes the plaques make the walls of the blood vessels bumpy. This can lead to blood clots forming inside the vessels. When a blood clot forms on a plaque, it can block the flow of blood to your heart or brain, and this can cause a heart attack or a stroke.

What types of fats do I need to watch out for?

The types of fats that you have to worry about the most are saturated fats and trans fats. These are the solid fats found in meat and meat products (such as pies and sausages), and in dairy products (such as butter, hard cheese, milk, and cream). If you eat too much of this type of fat, the amount of bad (or LDL) cholesterol in your blood rises.


Get Your Fibre!

Dietary fiber (dietary fibre, roughage) is an essential nutrient required for proper digestion of foods, proper functioning of the digestive tract at large, and for helping you feel full.

A deficiency of fiber can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids, and elevated levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. Conversely, an excess of fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction, diarrhea, or even dehydration. Individuals who increase their intake of fiber, should in turn, also increase their intake for water. We should aim to eat 18g of fibre per day, average consumption in the UK is 12g.



This type of fibre cannot be dissolved in water. It passes through the digestive system mostly unchanged. It acts like a sponge and absorbs water, adds bulk to stools (faeces), and allows waste to be passed through bowels more quickly. This helps to prevent constipation and other conditions such as piles (haemorrhoids) and diverticular disease. This type of fibre is found in:

  • Skin, pith and pips of fruit and vegetables
  • Wheat and bran
  • Corn (maize)
  • Nuts and whole grains


This type of fibre does dissolve in water and can be broken down by the natural germs (bacteria) in the bowels. It softens stools and makes them larger, so that they are easier to pass. It also forms a gel in the stomach when mixed with water. The gel binds with excess cholesterol so it does not get absorbed, which helps to reduce the risk of heart disease. Also, soluble fibre helps to slow down the digestion of food; therefore, sugar (glucose – our main source of energy) is released and absorbed slowly. This keeps our blood sugar levels steady. This type of fibre is found in:

  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Psyllium and ispaghula
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Beans and pulses

Top Fibre Foods

  • Beans. All beans are good, whether baked beans, beans like kidney beans in chilli or beans in salads. Half a tin of baked beans (200g) is 7g of fibre.
  • Wholegrain and wholemeal. Skip white bread and pasta, look out for wholegrain and wholemeal on the labels.
  • Brown or wholegrain rice. White rice doesn’t offer as much fibre.
    Keep your finger on the pulses.
  • As well as beans, chickpeas and lentils are full of fibre, high in protein and low fat.
  • Nuts. Almonds, pecans, and walnuts have more fibre than other nuts.
  • Jacket potato – the skin is the important bit. A small baked potato has 3g fibre.
  • Dried fruit. If fresh fruit isn’t available, dried fruit offers a fibre-full snack. A 50g portion of dried figs is 4g fibre.
  • Bran based cereal and other healthy cereal options. To count as high-fibre food, it has to contain at least 6g of fibre per 100g. A 30g bowl of bran flakes delivers 4g of fibre.
  • Porridge. Porridge is made from oats which are a great source of fibre.
  • Fruit and veg. At least 5-a-day portions and the crunchier, the better. A medium-sized apple alone is 2g fibre.



Are you watching your belly fat?

The truth is everyone has some belly fat, even people who have flat abs.

That’s normal. But too much belly fat can affect your health in a way that other fat doesn’t.
Some of your fat is right under your skin. Other fat is deeper inside, around your heart, lungs, liver, and other organs.

It’s that deeper fat — called “visceral” fat — that may be the bigger problem, even for thin people.


Deep Belly Fat

You need some visceral fat. It provides cushioning around your organs.
But if you have too much of it, you may be more likely to get high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. The fat doesn’t just sit there. It’s an active part of your body, making lots of nasty substances.

If you gain too much weight, your body starts to store your fat in unusual places.
With increasing obesity, you have people whose regular areas to store fat are so full that the fat is deposited into the organs and around the heart.

How Much Belly Fat Do You Have?

The most precise way to determine how much visceral fat you have is to get a CT scan or MRI. But there’s a much simpler, low-cost way to check.

Get a measuring tape, wrap it around your waist at your belly button, and check your girth. Do it while you’re standing up, and make sure the tape measure is level.
For your health’s sake, you want your waist size to be less than 35 inches if you’re a woman and less than 40 inches if you’re a man.
Having a “pear shape” — bigger hips and thighs — is considered safer than an “apple shape,” which describes a wider waistline.
Its apple versus pear ideally, if you have more abdominal fat, it’s probably an indicator that you have more visceral fat.

Thin People Have It, Too

Even if you’re thin, you can still have too much visceral fat.
How much you have is partly about your genes, and partly about your lifestyle, especially how active you are.
Visceral fat likes inactivity. In one study, thin people who watched their diets but didn’t exercise were more likely to have too much visceral fat.

The key is to be active, no matter what size you are.

4 Steps for Beating Belly Fat

There are four keys to controlling belly fat: exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management.

1. Exercise: Vigorous exercise trims all your fat, including visceral fat.

Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days a week. Walking counts, as long as it’s brisk enough that you work up a sweat and breathe harder, with your heart rate faster than usual.
To get the same results in half the time, step up your pace and get vigorous exercise — like jogging or walking. You’d need to do that for 20 minutes a day, 4 days a week. Jog, if you’re already fit, or walk briskly at an incline on a treadmill if you’re not ready for jogging.

Moderate activity — raising your heart rate for 30 minutes at least three times per week — also helps. It slows down how much visceral fat you gain. But to burn visceral fat, your workouts may need to be stepped up.

Rake leaves, walk, garden, go to Zumba, play soccer with your kids. It doesn’t have to be in the gym!

If you are not active now, it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a new fitness program.

2. Diet: There is no magic diet for belly fat. But when you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually goes first.

Getting enough fiber can help. Research shows people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day — without any other diet changes — build up less visceral fat over time than others. That’s as simple as eating two small apples, a cup of green peas, or a half-cup of pinto beans.

Even if you kept everything else the same but switched to a higher-fiber bread, you might be able to better maintain your weight over time.

3. Sleep: Getting the right amount of shut-eye helps.

In one study, people who got 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night gained less visceral fat over 5 years compared to those who slept 5 or fewer hours per night or 8 or more hours per night. Sleep may not have been the only thing that mattered — but it was part of the picture.

4. Stress: Everyone has stress. How you handle it matters.

The best things you can do include relaxing with friends and family, meditating, exercising to blow off steam, and getting counseling. That leaves you healthier and better prepared to make good choices for yourself.

Make the change today, don’t let that fat take over!

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