Fat-fighting Q+As

Butter or marg, vegetarian or meatie, takeaway or eat at home? Here are the answers to your dilemmas

Posted: 5 June 2002

So it's not the most comprehensive weight-loss Q&A in the world - but it does have the answers to those old chestnuts we so often wonder about.

Q: Butter Or Margarine?

A: Butter is made by churning cream. There are no other ingredients, although salted butters typically have 1.5 to 2 per cent salt added. Butter lovers defend their favourite spread by saying that it is natural and contains no additives – and how no margarine or dairy spread has yet managed to emulate its creamy taste. The new spreadable butters have been whipped or have sometimes had the hard fat removed – but they are as high in saturated fats as the original.

All of the other spreads in the refrigerator section at the supermarket are highly processed mixes of water, vegetable oils and additives blended with emulsifiers and flavoured with whey or, sometimes, butter itself.

Choose a spread which has no more than 15 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams and look for labels which claim that the product is either high in polyunsaturates or monounsturates. Manufacturers need not state the trans fatty acid content unless they claim their product is ‘low in trans fats’. The average spread has five to seven per cent.

Ordinary margarine, whether it is polyunsaturated or not, has the same total fat content as butter (about 80 per cent), so look for a reduced-fat label if you want fewer calories.

Q: Vegetarian Or Meat-Eater?

A: There are definite health advantages to be gained from switching to meat-free eating. Some studies have shown that risk of heart disease, the nation’s biggest killer, is one third less for veggies, and eating less red meat (and therefore less saturated fat) is also thought to lower blood pressure and to reduce the risks of some cancers. In fact, the National Cancer Research Institute in Tokyo showed that women who eat meat daily have almost a four times greater risk of getting breast cancer than those who eat no meat.

Also, one 11-year study of 11,000 people at Oxford University, published in the British Medical Journal, found that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of cancer by up to 40 per cent. Since vegetarians also tend to eat less saturated fat (which comes mainly from animal sources) and more fibre, they also record lower blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, their risk of heart disease drops.

Vegetarians also have a lower risk of getting gallstones and diverticular disease, according to researchers. If you think it is for you, the Vegetarian Society recommends gradually replacing animal foods with meat-free products. “Always check food labelling for ingredients, and look for the words ‘suitable for vegetarians’, or better still, the Vegetarian Society logo,” says a spokesperson for the Society.

Q: Takeaway Or Cook At Home?

A: Even the most health-conscious among us now gets around one quarter of our daily calories from takeaway foods. Very often the easiest thing to grab after a training session is a burger and fries or fish and chips. But are they doing us any good at all? While many of these meals are well publicised for their high fat and sodium content, it seems that fast foods as a whole are somewhat unfairly maligned as junk food. In fact, choose carefully and life can be healthy in the fast-food lane. Here’s a brief guide to what’s hot and what’s not.

Burger And Fries This accounts for one in five of all takeaway meals in the UK, and McDonalds alone serves 13,000 customers a minute worldwide. Most of the big chains have had a health drive in recent years and have switched, for instance, from using saturated fat to vegetable oils for frying foods. Burgers rarely contain additives these days either. The disadvantages of a burger and fries are the fat content (a typical portion contains 42 per cent fat), the low fibre count and the fact that it contains enough sodium to fulfil the average person’s daily requirement. To cut fat, stick to small portions of thinly-fried chips (which soak up more fat than normal chips because of their larger total surface area) and avoid salads soaked in oily dressings. Ask for a large burger without mayonnaise (which adds 11 grams a tablespoon) and melted cheese and you’ll save 200 calories. For a drink, choose orange juice or water rather than fizzy drinks which contain little more than sugar and water with virtually no nutrients.

Doner Kebab Most of the bad publicity for the kebab centres around the fact that if meat is kept warm for a long time, it harbours the risk of food poisoning. Sometimes, cheap cuts of fatty meat are used to make kebabs – look closely and you can see the globules of fat in the reconstituted meat. But in a good-quality kebab shop, you can eat a fairly balanced meal. Served with salad in pitta bread, a kebab is a good source of protein, zinc and iron.

Fish And Chips The big problem here, obviously, is fat. Depending on portion size, fish and chips will provide one third of your daily fat requirement in one fell swoop, and usually it is the unhealthy saturated variety. Some shops have switched to using vegetable oil, but the only way to find out what sort of fat is used is to ask. Still, the nation’s favourite fast food does have some good points. Fish, of course, is an excellent source of protein, vitamin D and B12. And if it is cooked when the oil is very hot, the batter won’t absorb too much fat. To reduce fat, peel off the batter. Chip shop chips are actually a better choice than the thin-cut fried ones because they’re less fatty and a deep-fried, thick-cut chip retains more vitamin C than a boiled potato of the same size.

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Discuss this article

I am a new runner, at the age of 38 (old enough to know better) and am struggling a bit regarding nutrition. I am lacto-vegetarian, need to lose about 5 lbs, so not grossly overweight, but seem to have a cut out point after about 20 minutes when I feel so heavyand sluggish; I walk for about 2 minutes, then run another 10, then walk again...this can go on for 2 hours! I have been at this stage for three weeks now, and am entered in a 10km race on Easter monday. What should I be eating (or not!) to help convert fat to muscle and energy? Help!
Posted: 30/03/2003 at 20:56

Can someone please tell me how long the body takes to convert food high in carboyhrates into energy. And how long does the effect of a carbohydrate high meal last?
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 13:31

Ben - it all depends on the type of carbohydrate, some take longer than others - have a search for "Gylcemic Index" on the internet
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 13:33

Teresa: sounds to me like you're doing well for a new runner. Given the short timescale before Easter Monday it might be wise to plan to do it 10 mins run, 1 min walk. It works well for a lot of people and is better than running till you're exhauseted before having a walk break.
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 13:38


Do you eat a lot of fatty dairy products? Perhaps a switch to semi- or skimmed milk and yoghurt, and cutting down butter and cheese consumption would help? As for converting fat to muscle and energy, I believe that the long slow run is best for this, although someone else will know better than I do. Good luck!
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 17:08

Teresa, there are loads of good carbo sources for veggies - pasta, spuds, rice, pulses, noodles (I think), bread. Can't explain the science to you on why carbs are good for energy & protein is good afterwards for muscle recovery but it works for me.

Also, hydration might be a key to low energy on runs. When I started running I focused on just running an extra 5 mins each week & built up to my 1st 10k that way.

Good luck in the race, loads of runners do the run-walk thing at all distances.
Posted: 08/04/2003 at 17:49

I am veggie as well, I recently read a very good book called the new glucose revolution which is all about glycemic index. It tells you which foods to eat when. Basically, best to eat slow release carbs a couple of hours before your run eg oats, beans, fruit or veg. I always thought brown rice and wholemeal bread were 'good' but infact they have a very high index so you do not get a slow steady supply of energy from them. After exercise you should replace the energy quickly with high GI foods. Also, if you try to eat more low GI foods they keep you going for longer so you are les likely to snack in the day and therefor will consume fewer calories so hopefully loose weight. I am quite a big snacker and since including more oats, fruit, veg and protein have had less need
Posted: 14/05/2004 at 15:46

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