Saturated Fat: Is It Good or Bad?

Over the years there have been a ton of headlines in the media that claim saturated fat is now good – while others say too much is harmful and can cause heart disease. Because of this inconsistent information, you probably don’t know what to think. And that can be a problem since you could be putting your health at risk.

What You Should Know About Fat in General

Here are a few things we can say with confidence about fat:

  1. Your body needs fat to function. It protects nerve tissues, provides fuel and vitamins, makes your skin soft, and more.
  2. Trans fats (look for the word hydrogenated) are bad. There’s a lot of evidence they increase heart disease. Read more about trans fats here.
  3. Omega 3 fatty acids protect against heart disease. You get them from seafood, fish, and some plants like flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. More information is available on fish and omega-3 fatty acids here.
  4. Replace foods high in saturated fat with foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

The Saturated Fat Debate

The topic of saturated fat is and will continue to be a hot debate, and for good reason. Saturated fat is known to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, the kind that’s associated with heart disease. But scientists have found conflicting evidence about eating saturated fat and having an increased risk of heart attack or heart disease. The findings can boil down to the quality of the study itself and the types of saturated fatty acids studied.

What newer research is telling us; however, is there’s much variability within the category of saturated fat and how individual fatty acids affect health.

Some saturated fats, like coconut oil, raise both LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol about the same. Others, like dark chocolate, don’t seem to affect LDL cholesterol at all. These two examples of saturated fats don’t seem to pose much of a problem when they are eaten in moderation. But other saturated fats, like red meat, raise bad cholesterol more than they do good cholesterol— and that causes concern about how much people should consume.

While we wait for more clarity on saturated fat, it’s best to follow the recommendations of professional health organizations such as the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, World Heart Federation, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They agree you should limit your daily intake of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake, and 7 percent if you’re at high risk for heart disease. For women this equates to 12 to 15 grams of saturated fat per day and for men 15 to 20 grams per day.

Foods with Saturated Fat

Saturated fat mainly comes from animal sources. Example foods are:

  • Fatty cuts of beef and pork
  • Lamb
  • Processed meats – hot dogs, bacon, sausage, lunch meat
  • Poultry with skin
  • Lard (rendered pork fat) and beef fat and
  • Butter and cream
  • Cheese
  • Other dairy products made from whole or reduced fat (2 percent) milk

The Takeaway

Focusing solely on saturated fat, or even a single food for that matter, detracts from the bigger picture. Your risk for heart disease is determined by an overall dietary pattern rather than a single food or nutrient. The primary goal in eating healthy is about balance, moderation, portion control, and consistency.

Here are 10 tips you can use to get on the right track to a healthy eating plan:

  1. Include more vegetables and fruit in your meals and snacks if you aren’t already.
  2. Eat legumes, like beans and lentils, three to four times a week.
  3. Choose whole grains and eat three to four servings each day. Limit foods made from refined and enriched flour as much as possible.
  4. Stick to lean sources of protein such as poultry (without skin), fish, tofu, whole soy foods more often.
  5. Use healthy fats like plant-based oils, nuts, and nut butters for most of your cooking and eating needs.
  6. Restrict saturated fat by limiting red meat to no more than eight ounces a week and saving butter and cream for special treats.
  7. Eliminate trans-fats entirely (look for the word hydrogenated).
  8. Make your snacks healthy with vegetables, fruit, yogurt, nuts, or string cheese. Not processed or baked goods, potato chips, and other refined carbohydrates.
  9. Limit sugar in foods and beverages as much as possible. (For help spotting added sugars on food labels, read this blog post.)
  10. Avoid processed/convenience food and fast food high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars.

BONUS READING: Check out our article on 9 risk factors for heart disease that you can control.

Meet the Author

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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