Top 10 Sources of Saturated Fat in Our Diets
Plus alternatives, tips to cut back and what to look for on labels.
Fat is an important and nutritious part of our diets. Though it has had a controversial history, fat, both saturated and unsaturated, deserves space in your eating pattern. What types of fats to include, however, is another conversation. Saturated fats differ in their composition from unsaturated fats in a way that makes them solid at room temperature (think butter and lard compared to olive oil). Too much saturated fat can lead to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and other health problems. (Learn more about the difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat.)
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated by the USDA every five years. The goal of the report is to give Americans recommendations that will help them stay healthy and nourished while reducing their risk for chronic illness. The most recent 2020-2025 report suggests that 10% or less of your daily calories come from saturated fats. In an average 2,000 calorie diet, that equates to about 22 grams of saturated fat per day. The American Heart Association provides a stricter recommendation of 6% or less calories from saturated fat (about 13 grams on a 2,000-calorie diet). But how much is that really? And what does it look like on your plate? Here we look at the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for saturated fats, top sources in our diet and tips to help you cut down.
Top 10 Sources of Saturated Fat in Our Diet
The average American eats roughly 239 calories per day of saturated fats, slightly higher than the 200 calorie recommendation. This means you can cut back your intake and meet the Dietary Guidelines goal without completely overhauling your diet. When we think of saturated fats, we may think of red meats like steak and bacon, but there are actually several other sources that might surprise you. Here are the top ten sources of saturated fats in our diet.
Bread does not typically have saturated fats, so the saturated fat content in sandwiches is mostly from processed meats and cheeses. Adding creamy spreads, like mayonnaise, can increase the saturated fat, as well. Sandwiches contribute 19% of the saturated fats in our diets. Since this is a popular meal to get as takeout, making your own from scratch is an easy place to start when trying to cut down. Restaurants serve large portions of meat and cheese, and could add butter or mayonnaise for flavor. Make your own sandwich that focuses on veggies with a lean protein like tofu, tempeh or turkey. Choose a spread like hummus that adds nutrients, protein and flavor without the saturated fat.
2. Dessert & Sweet Snacks
This might be surprising since, but desserts and sweets usually have a far amount of butter, palm oil or dairy fats added to them. These treats contribute roughly 11% of our saturated fat intake. This category included foods like ice cream, cakes, pies, doughnuts, cookies, brownies and more. This doesn't mean you need to swear off desserts, but the excess fats and added sugars are not a health-promoting combo. Enjoy treats in moderation and focus on savoring a smaller portion. Instead of having dessert every day, try alternatives like having a cup of tea or piece of fruit. You can also make one of our homemade dairy-free desserts, which naturally tend to be lower in saturated fats and higher in heart-healthy fats from nuts and plant oils.
3. Rice, Pasta & Grain-Based Mixed Dishes
Grains themselves do not contain any saturated fat, but grain-based mixed dishes are the third highest source (7%) of saturated fat in our diet. This is likely due to the added fat, meat and cheese in mixed dishes (think lasagna, casseroles and noodle dishes). One great way to cut back is by making food from scratch. Restaurant dishes and packaged food products add more saturated fat that you ever would at home. You can also opt for plant-based mixed dishes like Vegetarian Udon Noodle Soup and Black Bean-Cauliflower "Rice" Bowls for all of the flavor and satisfaction without as much saturated fat.
4. Higher-Fat Milk & Yogurt
Let's be super clear that dairy is not inherently bad for you, but dairy foods do contain saturated fat (6% of our dietary intake, to be exact). Higher-fat milk and yogurt products can be more satisfying and deliver more nutrients, but try to limit the flavored dairy products and enjoy smaller portions. Along with being some of the highest dietary sources of added sugar in our diets, flavored higher-fat milks and yogurts can pile on the added sugar, calories and saturated fats in excess. A MyPlate serving is one cup for milk and yogurt, which is much smaller than the standard pint glass or bowl. Having smaller portions and choosing plain dairy products and adding your own flavors are great ways to cut back.
The cheese and meat products used in popular flavors of pizza are the culprit for the 5% of the saturated fats in our diets. Similar to other foods, making pizza from scratch at home can help you keep an eye on the portions and cuts back on the added fat in restaurant foods. Swapping in vegetables for toppings in place of meat is also a great way to give your pizza a nutritious boost.
6. Meat, Poultry & Seafood Dishes
Meat is what many of us primarily think of when we think about saturated fat. However, on their own, meat-based mixed dishes only contribute 4% of our saturated fat intake. Meat, poultry and seafood are not bad for you, and can be very healthy if enjoyed in moderation. To lower your saturated fat intake, choose seafood and fish more often (especially omega-3 rich fish) than you choose red meats higher in saturated fat. Also try to have a few vegetarian days each week where you skip the meat altogether. We have ample vegetarian dinner recipes for inspiration.
7. Chips, Crackers & Savory Snacks
The saturated fat in any grain food is added, so this 4% of saturated fat intake can be attributed to processed chips, crackers and savory snacks. Instead of buying chips in a pinch, opt for trail mix or mixed nuts. Better yet, plan ahead and make some of our easy snack recipes, like Air-Fryer Crispy Chickpeas and Homemade Multi-Seed Crackers, for something healthier, cheaper and lower in saturated fats.
Though we love cheese at EatingWell and firmly believe it can actually provide some great health benefits, it makes up about 4% of our saturated fat intake. You don't need to cut out cheese altogether to keep your saturated fat consumption in check, though. When you do enjoy cheese, try to add it as a flavorful topping rather than the main part of a dish. Also try to enjoy some vegan meals like Vegan Mac & Cheese and Vegan Eggplant Parmesan that are cheese-free to help you moderate your intake without sacrificing flavor.
Similar to certain condiments, spreads like mayonnaise and butter contribute about 3% of our saturated fat intake on their own. To help you cut back, try making your own like Avocado Hummus and Vegan Lemon-Dill Cashew Dip. Making your own spreads helps you save money and can also make it easy to have a plant-based accompaniment to your meals.
Eggs are one of the most affordable proteins in the grocery store, and they have some impressive nutrition and health benefits. They also contribute 3% of our saturated fat intake, which is nothing to lose sleep over. Though the debate on eggs rages on, there is no question that they make a filling, delicious and affordable protein option and are actually very nutritious. The yolk of the egg contains the fat as well as nutrients, antioxidants and protein, while the egg white contains protein. There is no need to skip either part of the egg, but if you eat large portions of eggs often it might be something to cut back. MyPlate recommends people ages 19 and older eat between five and seven ounces of protein per day, and one egg counts as a one-ounce equivalent.
Excessive consumption of saturated fat may lead to heart disease and other health conditions. Not all of the foods on this list are "unhealthy", but awareness of saturated fat content, especially in processed foods, can help us keep it in check. Swapping out saturated fats for good-for-you fats found in nuts, olives, fish, avocados and seeds can help you upgrade your diet.