Every good story has a villain, and when it comes to food and fad diets there’s no exception. One of the top nutrition demons for over 40 years has been saturated fat –found in high amounts in many baked and fried goods, meat, and full-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese. The rationale? Saturated fat is associated with increased LDL, or “bad” cholesterol that clogs arteries. We’ll come back to this.
The US Dietary Guidelines tells us to limit saturated fat due to studies linking saturated fat to heart disease, the number one killer worldwide. However, more and more research has since led experts to question this link.
Recently, after pooling data from 72 studies, with over 600,000 participants, it was concluded that “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
Wait, what? Does this mean I should be eating more bacon?
Not so fast. The study shows a neutral effect on heart disease, translation: it has neither a beneficial nor a harmful effect. So maybe we should reconsider how nutrition plays a role in heart health.
There are many kinds of saturated fatty acids, which may act differently. For example, there is some evidence that the fatty acids found in milk and yogurt may be beneficial for heart health, while those in red meats seem to increase the risk of heart disease and some cancers.
If saturated fat isn’t the problem, then what is?
In response to the “fat-free” craze of the 1990’s, the food industry made low-fat and fat-free versions of America’s favorite foods still taste good by adding refined carbohydrates and added sugars. To our surprise, while our saturated fat intake went down, heart disease risk has not. Many experts now suspect excess carbohydrates may be the culprit to heart disease.
What about that “bad” cholesterol?
Yes, saturated fat does appear to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. However just as there are many types of saturated fats, there are different types of LDLs. Saturated fat appears to raise the LDLs that float through the circulatory system making little trouble. But, excess carbohydrate intake increases the other LDLs which cause arterial damage and clogging.
We are still seeing recommendations to decrease our saturated fats since we don’t really know how much saturated fat is acceptable. More research will take billions of dollars and decades to complete.
Focus on foods, not nutrients.
Stop thinking fat, carbohydrates, and proteins formulas are the only way to a healthy diet. Too many calories, from any source, can lead to weight gain. The key is to be physically active, choose nutrient-rich foods from each of the five food groups –fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and dairy– practice portion control, and enjoy what you eat.
Eating healthy can be easy and delicious
There are many healthy options on and off campus. It’s up to you to choose them! Here are some My Plate healthy meal ideas that are inexpensive.
Tuna Salad Sandwich
- Whole Wheat Bread
- Lettuce and Tomato
- Carrot Sticks
- Chicken or Black Beans
- Brown Rice
- Grilled Mixed Vegetables
- Cheddar Cheese
For quick-to-fix, easy recipe ideas visit FoodHero.
- Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2014; 160(6): 398-407. Available at DOI: 10.7326/M13-1788.
- Malhotra, A. Saturated fat is not the major issue. BMJ 2013;347:f6340.
- Mayo Clinic. The Questionable Benefits of Exchanging Saturated Fats with Polyunsaturated Fat. (pdf)
- American Heart Association. Study Raises Questions about ‘good fats’ and ‘bad’ fats.’
- Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults (pdf). J Am Diet Assoc. 2014; 114(1): 136-153.