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Is Saturated Fat Still Considered Bad for You?

March 10, 2015

In recent years, you’ve probably seen a number of health articles, blogs and TV reports about the ills of saturated fat. We all know about the association of saturated fats found in butter, cheese and fatty meats to the risk of heart disease.

But new research has stirred debate about saturated fat and its relationship to heart disease. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, challenged the longstanding argument that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease. It did not support the current guidelines for replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats. The article was hotly debated and criticized for being misleading because the analysis contained several miscalculations and omissions.

While the experts are pondering the validity of the scientific data, the public is receiving mixed messages. So what are the facts? Should you consume saturated fats, and if so, how much of these foods can you safely eat before increasing your risk for heart disease?

What We Know

Nutrition guidelines agree with limiting saturated fats. The American Heart Association acknowledges that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines urge people to consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. In 2013, both the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) issued joint recommendations to limit saturated fat to five to six percent of calories. Another leading health organization, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also has recommended limiting saturated fats to between seven to 10 percent of daily calories.

The effects of saturated fats found in different foods are not always obvious. Coconut oil, for example, is 87 percent saturated fat, while 62 percent of the fat in butter is saturated. However, the palmitic acid in butter raises LDL cholesterol while coconut oil, which is high in lauric acid, is known to increase both (bad) LDL and (good) HDL cholesterol levels. While higher in saturated fat, coconut oil does not appear to increase cholesterol to the same degree as diets rich in butter.

As nutritional science evolves, and new research emerges, we may see changes to the saturated fat recommendations. Scientists are starting to move away from pinpointing specific nutrients and instead recommend the use of dietary patterns for heart health. Instead of focusing on saturated fat, they suggest concentrating on eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet.

Best Bets for Heart Health

Based on current knowledge and guidelines, the best bet for your heart is to have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Minimize sugars and refined grains like white bread and white rice. Select mainly whole grains (brown or wild rice, quinoa, oats, barley). Choose fish most often and minimize red and processed meats. Use unsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. Cook more often with minimally processed foods and select low-fat dairy products.

Until new guidelines are firmly established, continue to substitute saturated fats with unsaturated fats. In place of butter or coconut oil, use olive oil. Include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, tuna, walnuts and flax. Use nuts in place of cheese on your salad, use oil-based dressings instead of creamy dressings, and select salmon over prime rib.

So what's the bottom line? Making these substitutions is the best choice for your heart’s health. Fat is a part of a balanced diet, but opt for healthy fats like the ones mentioned above rather than calorie-rich saturated fats that may increase your cholesterol and your overall risk for heart disease.