Is Saturated Fat Actually Bad For Your Heart?
Fat has a long-standing identity crisis. In the '90s, all of it was bad. Later, only some types were unhealthy, while others were good. (Looking at you, avocado.) More recently, it seems like most fats are back on the table, with headlines celebrating butter, coconut oil and other formerly vilified saturated fats. Confusing, right?
Some of the pro-butter news has stemmed from several recent meta-analyses of large observational studies that found no link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Plus, meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials (the gold standard for research) reported inconsistent results, but leaned toward a lack of an association. Another earlier study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled and analyzed the results of 21 previous studies and found no clear evidence that consuming more saturated fat led to a higher risk of heart disease or stroke?
Despite this research, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans still recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your daily calories (a target that only a quarter of Americans are hitting, by the way). Why? Because balance is important. "Saturated fats aren't intrinsically bad, but modern diets tend to deliver too much, and an excess is bad," says David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., an EatingWell advisory board member and president of the True Health Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of medical experts aimed at preventing chronic diseases. So there's no need to eliminate saturated fat from your diet, just don't go overboard—and be mindful of what you eat instead. "Discrepancies between studies are often due to differences in the comparison or the saturated fat replacement," explains Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., a professor emerita in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis. In other words, whether saturated fat is good, bad or immaterial depends on what you're comparing it to. "And we now have a better understanding of what should replace saturated fats in the diet,"she adds.
Look to unsaturated fats—as they have been shown to lower your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. While they're all heart-healthy, a study published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Disease found that polyunsaturated fats (soybean and corn oil are good sources), and especially omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (found in fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds), are particularly beneficial.
And be careful not to trade saturated-fat-heavy foods for those with added sugars or other ultra-refined carbs. "The best available evidence suggests that saturated fats from meats and dairy are almost identically as harmful as added sugars," says Katz. (That's why the fat-free craze of the '90s was such bad news: food companies stripped out both saturated and unsaturated fats and then pumped up flavor with sweeteners and other refined carbs.)
The Bottom Line
"A better way of looking at this than which fat is good and which is bad is: What foods make your overall diet and health better?" suggests Katz. You already know the answer: vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seafood, nuts and seeds, all of which are not significant sources of saturated fat. And stock your pantry with a variety of fats and oils for cooking (yes, even butter!). They each have unique culinary uses, and they'll provide a good mix of fatty acids in your diet.
This article first appeared in EatingWell magazine, January/February 2022.