Saturated Fats: What to Know Now

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Aug. 13, 2015 -- Saturated fats, like those found in red meat and high-fat ice cream, may not be so bad for your heart health after all. They aren't linked to heart disease, according to a new report in BMJ.

So is that good news? Not so fast. That's only part of the story, according to two nutrition experts: Frank Hu, MD, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, and Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University.

People who cut back on saturated fat often start eating more refined, unhealthy carbohydrates like white bread, they say. And those aren't heart-healthy, either.

Q: Does this new report mean we can eat all the saturated fat we want?

"Not really," Hu says. "I think we need to separate the results carefully."

"When people reduce their saturated fat content, if they replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, and white rice, it is not going to do any good, because we know too much refined carbohydrates is also a risk factor for heart disease," he says.

The study authors recommend that when you cut back on saturated fat, carefully consider what foods you eat instead.

"If you compare saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, both are bad. They are basically equal in their relation with heart disease."

The study doesn't provide convincing evidence that saturated fat doesn't cause heart disease, Lichtenstein says. If you don't consider what you replace saturated fat with, then "we can learn little from this study," she says.

Q: What is the bottom line?

"The best advice we can give people is to limit saturated fatty acids [such as] meat and dairy fat (a.k.a. butter) and replace it with polyunsaturated fatty acid, such as soybean and corn oils, and not carbohydrates," Lichtenstein says.

Hu agrees. He says that if you replace saturated fats in your diet with healthy fats -- vegetable oils, nuts, seafood -- it will lower your heart disease risk.

Q: How much saturated fat can we eat and stay healthy?

Dietary guidelines recommend we get no more than 10% of our daily calories from saturated fat. Hu calls that "reasonable."

"Saturated fat comes from some healthy foods, such as olive oil and nuts," he says. "We should make sure we don't eat too many unhealthy foods high in saturated fat, such as processed meat, red meat, butter and those things."

Q: What about cooking oils?

Soybean and corn oil can be used to replace animal fat, Lichtenstein says.

There's also olive oil, canola oil, vegetable oils, or a blend of oils such as canola, soybean, corn, and safflower oil, Hu says.

"I think that's a good way to go for most people. Palm oil, palm kernel oil, (and) tropical oils are high in saturated fat. It's not that we shouldn't consume those ... at all, it's just the primary source of cooking oils should be from plant-based oil high in unsaturated (fat) rather than animal fats or tropical fats."


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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SOURCES: Frank Hu, MD, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition and epidemiology, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Tufts University. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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