What’s the Deal with Saturated Fat?

So, you have a family history of cardiovascular disease. Or, maybe you have experienced symptoms of heart disease yourself. What do you do? Avoid saturated fats? Eat more unsaturated fats? But, what about coconut oil? And the talk about trans fat being hard on your arteries? What’s the truth about carbs?

There’s a lot of online chatter about all of this. It’s hard to figure out what you should and shouldn’t do! Previous years have yielded research on the negative effects of saturated fats on cardiovascular health. Those with a family/personal history of cardiovascular disease have been told to limit saturated fat intake to 10% or less of total daily fat, or to avoid it altogether. And in some cases, it’s been recommended to adopt a low-fat diet entirely. Yet, rates of heart disease and its associated conditions continue to soar in the U.S. It is still the number one cause of death for both men and women across most racial and ethnic groups. Why is this? Is it because no one has heeded any dietary advice in past years, or could it be that we have been recommending inappropriate changes?

Recent research has begun to unveil evidence that shows industrial trans fats (margarine, cookies, cakes, crackers, packaged foods) increase the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), stroke, and associated conditions. The same research has shown that saturated fats display no correlation with an increase in those diseases. Furthermore, another study published in 2004 discusses the unlikely pairing of a high-fat, high-saturated-fat diet and reduced CAD risk in its participants. But, with one side of an argument always comes another one: another piece ofΒ research suggests that saturated fats are not really better. It’s just that many people replace them with refined carbohydrates, which do not reduce cardiovascular risk. This unhealthy swap can give the impression that eating saturated fats would be healthier to begin with…All of this really provides some clarity, doesn’t it?!

While researchers are determining more completely how different types of fats affect cardiovascular health, I would like to remind you of a few things:

  1. Consider the natural and the real. Which whole foods naturally contain saturated fats? In what foods do we typically find refined carbohydrates and trans fats? We’ve become a society so consumed with carbohydrate and fat grams, that sometimes we forget that reducing risk of disease involves also focusing on the quality of the food we’re eating. Maybe improving our cholesterol ratio means cutting out those low-fat cookies and increasing your intake of olive oil. Maybe decreasing our blood pressure means swapping those sugary protein bars for full-fat Greek yogurt instead. These swaps may mean increasing our fat intake (maybe even the saturated fat number!), but the overall quality of real food, with its vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, still surpasses any processed “low-fat” product we hope will help cut our risk. It is the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of these foods that can make a difference in our overall cardiovascular health.
  2. After you’ve looked at the quality of your diet, consider the numbers. Whenever I have clients who ask if they should focus more on quality or quantity, my answer is always BOTH! But, I also usually recommend they tackle one at a time. Once you’ve found your standing with the quality of your diet, become more familiar with how much total fat (and protein and carbs) you are eating daily. You can find good baseline recommendations for fat grams here. I generally recommend a range of 35-40% total fat intake, with most of this coming from whole food sources (even beef or dairy).Β Whole foods, like olive oil, grass-fed beef and whole-fat dairy, contain vitamins and minerals that support vital antioxidant and anti-inflammatory processes as one reduces their quantitative intake of inflammation-causing trans fats from processed foods.Β As always, these are general recommendations of mine. Please consult your physician and a Registered Dietitian before adopting any recommendations.
  3. Finally, after getting a better picture of the quality and quantity of your diet, determine the changes to which you can commit long-term. None of this will be helpful for you if you can only stay committed to it for a few weeks. Make a list of the overlapping foods that you both enjoy and that can boost your cardiovascular health, taking the whole foods approach I discussed above. Then, plan those foods into your daily and weekly routines to create consistency and habit. Eating for a healthy heart does not have to be boring or tasteless! Make it work for you.
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