Find out about fat

A small amount of fat is an important part of a balanced diet, and not all fats increase our cholesterol levels. But we need to make sure we don't eat too much fat (including ghee, pictured).

South Asian communities

The term 'south Asian' refers here to anyone of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Sri Lankan origin.

Each of these communities has its own unique culture and background, but they share some common health issues.

Fat contains a lot of calories and most people in the UK have too much fat in their diet, which can lead to weight gain.

Everyone stores some fat under the skin and around the internal organs, but where excess fat is stored differs from person to person. Some people tend to store excess fat around their middle and some are more likely to store it around their thighs and bottom.

Putting on weight around the middle can be a more serious risk factor for health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, particularly if you're of south Asian origin. For more information on the risks of putting on weight around your belly, see Why body shape matters.

Not all fat is bad

There are different types of fat and a small amount of fat is an important part of a balanced diet. Fat helps the body absorb certain nutrients and is a source of energy. Because fat contains a lot of calories, cutting back on the total amount of fat you eat is a good idea, but it's also important to think about the type of fat you're eating. There are two main types of dietary fat: saturated and unsaturated.

Steam, bake, grill

To help cut down on the amount of fat in your diet, avoid frying food. Try steaming, baking or grilling instead.

Saturated fat occurs in many foods. Foods with high levels of saturated fat include:

  • butter
  • ghee
  • lard
  • cream
  • cheese
  • processed products such as sausages, kebabs, pastries, pies, biscuits and cakes

Too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol, which over time increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Most people in the UK need to cut down on the amount of saturated fat in their diet.

Unsaturated fat is found in foods such as:

  • oily fish (for example mackerel and salmon)
  • nuts and seeds
  • sunflower oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • olive oil
  • avocados

These fats can help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Try to replace some of the foods you eat that are high in saturated fat with foods that contain unsaturated fats. But don't eat too much, as we should try to cut down on the amount of total fat we are eating too.

High fat and low fat

A good way to help cut down your fat intake is to read the labels on food packaging.

Food labels show the amount of total fat in the food, as well as the amount of saturated fat alone.

  • Total fat: A food is high in total fat if there is more than 17.5g of fat per 100g. A food is low in total fat if there is 3g or less of fat per 100g.
  • Saturated fat: A food is high in saturated fat if there is more than 5g of saturates per 100g. A food is low in saturated fat if there is 1.5g or less of saturates per 100g.

You can also look out for the colour-coded labels, used on the front of some food packets. These will tell you at a glance if a food is high in fat, sugar or salt. A red label means high, so try to limit the amount of these foods you eat by eating them less often and in smaller amounts.

What 'low fat', 'light' and 'lite' really mean

To get the whole picture about a product and compare it properly with similar foods, you will need to take a close look at the nutrition label. The easiest way to compare products is to look at the information per 100g.

A claim that a food is low in fat can only be made where the product contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids.

For a food product to say that it is “light” or “lite”, it must be at least 30% lower in at least one typical value, such as calories or fat, than the standard version of the products. The label must explain exactly what has been reduced and by how much, for example “light: 30% less fat”.

You may be surprised at how little difference there is between foods that carry claims and those that don't. A “light” or “lite” version of one brand of crisps may contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand.

Those tempting biscuits that claim to be light on fat can have more calories than you think, so always check the label. And bear in mind that a “light” microwave meal could still contain much more fat than a meal you cook at home with your own ingredients.

Remember that some low-fat foods can still be quite high in added sugar. Most people in the UK eat too much sugar, and many high-sugar foods are also high in energy, so eating these foods too often can contribute to weight gain. Likewise, most people in the UK tend to eat too much salt, and this can raise your blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

Read more about food labelling.

Omega-3 and heart disease

One type of unsaturated fat, called omega-3, may help protect against heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, pilchards and fresh tuna. It's recommended that you eat two portions of fish a week, one of them oily. Read more about eating fish and shellfish.

Next time you're going to cook fish, try steaming it instead of frying it. Or you could try baking, grilling or poaching it. These methods are much less fatty than frying, and if you make this change regularly you'll be reducing your fat intake and helping to keep your heart healthy.

Read 10 tips for a healthy diet from Dr Justin Zaman of the South Asian Health Foundation and consultant cardiologist at the James Paget University Hospital in Norfolk.