Oils and spreads

This is the smallest food group on the Eatwell Guide. The small size of this section reflects the fact that oils and spreads are high fat and contain a lot of calories, so these should only be consumed in small amounts. Some fat in the diet is essential but the government’s advice is to cut down on the amounts of these foods in the diet, particularly saturated fats. Official guidance is to choose unsaturated fats from plant sources and in liquid form as oil, for example vegetable oil, rapeseed oil and olive oil. Swapping to unsaturated fats will help to reduce cholesterol in the blood, therefore it is important to get most of our fat from unsaturated oils.

Fat is full of energy – one gram of fat contains 9 calories, that’s more than double the number of calories for a gram of carbohydrate! Therefore eating a diet high in fat can lead to weight gain and becoming overweight.

Being overweight increases the risk of a number of health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. All of us should be aiming to eat a diet low in fat to help achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. There are two main kinds of fat in our diet, saturated and unsaturated. Both these types of fats contain the same number of calories, but have different effects on our health.

What is saturated fat

The adult Reference Intake (RI) for saturated fat is just 20g per day. From official guidance this is because consuming too much saturated fat can increase your cholesterol level and raised blood cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease and we should all cut down the amount of saturated fat in our diets.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • Meat (particularly fatty cuts and processed meat items such as sausages, pies and burgers)
  • Cakes, biscuits and pastries
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Lard
  • Palm oil
  • Coconut oil

However, as discussed below there is a growing alternative viewpoint on the role of fats in the diet.

An alternative viewpoint on fats

There is a growing mass in the nutrition world who consider the government’s official guidance on fats to be outdated and based on studies that are flawed, particularly the relationship between saturated fats, cholesterol and heart disease. Evidence is now mounting to show that:

  • Fats found naturally in the diet (for example fats in dairy products and meat) pose no harm to health and may actually have positive health benefits
  • Processed fats (such as margarines) are damaging to health

Evidence also suggests that not all polyunsaturated fats are equal.

Whilst non-official guidance on polyunsaturated fats supports the beneficial the role of omega-3 type varieties of polyunsaturated fats it also suggests that omega-6 fats (such as those found in vegetable oils, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and soya) may be harmful to our health if consumed in excess.

The key is to ensure that the diet contains roughly equal amounts of omega-3 (found in plant sources such as flaxseed, as well as oily fish and some meats) and omega-6. The challenge is that most of us are consuming much more (10 to 30 times) omega-6 than omega-3.

One type of fat everyone agrees on

Partially hydrogenated and trans fats are formed during a process known as ‘hydrogenation’. This process is used by food manufacturers to turn liquid vegetable oils into solid fats such as margarine. Therefore, foods that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil may also contain trans fats. Artificial trans fats (those that are formed by the hydrogenation process) may be in foods such as cakes, biscuits, fast food and pastry.

Many supermarkets and food manufacturers have removed artificial trans fats from their products. This type of fat has been linked with heart disease. Some foods, such as dairy products and meat naturally contain low levels of trans fats but these, naturally occurring versions have a very different chemical structure to those that are produced artificially, and are not linked with heart disease.

Unsaturated fats:

Besides saturated fats, unsaturated fats are the other main type of fat found in our diet. This type of fat can be further divided into two main kinds, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Official guidance is that we should try to replace saturated fat in our diet with unsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats come in two main forms, omega-3 and omega-6 and are found in vegetable oils, walnuts and oily fish (this contains a special kind of omega-3 fat that has health positive effects). Polyunsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your health when consumed in moderation to replace saturated fats in the diet. Polyunsaturated fats can lower levels of total cholesterol in the blood and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Monounsaturated fats offer the most health benefit when consumed in moderation as part of a low saturated fat diet. There are two types of cholesterol, ‘good’ (known as HDL) and ‘bad’ (known as LDL). Whereas, polyunsaturated fats reduce both good and bad cholesterol, monounsaturated fats lower levels of bad cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol levels. This has the most benefit to reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Monounsaturated fats are also often high in vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that provides additional health benefits. Good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil), avocados, nuts and seeds.

Monounsaturated fats are also found in animal products, around half the fat in steak is monounsaturated and it is the main type of fat found in lamb and eggs.

Oily fish and omega 3 fatty acids:

A healthy diet should include two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. This is because, as well being rich in beneficial vitamins and minerals, oily fish such as salmon and sardines are a very important source of a special kind of unsaturated fat known as omega 3. This type of fat has been shown to protect against heart disease.

One portion of oily fish is about 140g cooked weight and we should be aiming to eat one serving per week.

Oily fish include:

  • Sardines
  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Fresh tuna (not tinned- the canning process removes the omega 3 fats)
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Whitebait
  • Anchovies

Fat vs oil:

There is sometimes confusion between fats and oils and whether one or the other is healthier. Fats and oils are essentially the same; both are ‘fats’. The key difference is that fats are solid (or semi-solid) at room temperature, whereas oils are liquid at room temperature.

The difference in their appearance is due to the kind of fats they are made from. As a general rule, fats that are high in saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature (for example butter) and fats that are higher in monounsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature (for example olive oil).

Remember that all fats contain 9 calories per gram

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar:

Foods in this group are all high in fat, salt and sugar and should only be eaten in small amounts. These foods fall outside of the Eatwell Guide as they are not an essential part of a healthy diet.

What foods are included in this group?

  • Desserts
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Table sugar
  • Chocolates and confectionary
  • Full sugar soft drinks
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Oil used for cooking
  • Salad dressings including mayonnaise, salad cream and vinaigrettes
  • Sweet and savoury pastry items such as pies, tarts and flan
  • Crisps and other savoury fried snacks
  • Ice cream
  • Fatty or sweet sauces such as rich gravies, white sauce (roux) or chocolate/caramel/butterscotch sauces

Which foods should you be choosing?

Some foods in this group are eaten on a daily basis- such as spreading fats like margarine or butter. Use lower fat or lower sugar varieties of foods in this group, for example, low fat mayonnaise and salad dressings and drinks with no added sugar. Although foods in this group are not essential as part of a healthy balanced diet, they are often foods that we enjoy eating! Foods in this group should be enjoyed in moderation!