For years, we've been told that saturated fats spell trouble for heart health, but recent headlines suggest that saturated fat may not be as harmful as once believed. This makes it hard to understand the role that red meat, cheese, butter, and similar foods should have in our diet.
Are saturated fats bad for you, or are they a benign source of calories? Here's what you need to know to choose the healthiest fats for your heart.
The Skinny on Saturated Fat
There are three different types of fatty acids in our food: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Saturated fats are found mainly in butter, cheese, red meat, and coconut oil, while mono- and polyunsaturated fats are usually found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils like olive and canola.
While unsaturated fats can be beneficial for heart health, saturated fats are more troublesome. Why? Saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, which is linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats, by comparison, may help lower LDL levels.
Make Smart Trades
Reducing saturated fat might seem like a simple recipe for better heart health. However, when we eat less of one nutrient, we almost always replace it with something else. Swapping in cholesterol-lowering unsaturated fats for saturated fats is a smart move, but trading saturated fats for foods rich in refined carbohydrates -- such as white bread, white rice, pizza, or sugary cereals -- might not be so prudent. Regularly eating these foods can make it difficult for your body to use insulin properly, potentially raising your chances of developing of Type 2 diabetes, another risk factor for heart disease.
How Much Saturated Fat Is Safe?
As tempting as it may be to believe the latest news flashes that claim butter, cheese, and burgers are back on the menu, many health experts still recommend moderation with these foods. For now, the best advice is to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest capping saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories, about 22 grams a day. If you already have heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to no more than 6 percent of total calories, translating to roughly 13 grams a day.
Try Small Changes
Luckily, cutting down on your saturated fat intake is easier than you might think. If you drink whole or 2 percent milk, try switching to 1 percent. Trade fattier cuts of beef for lean cuts -- you can find them by looking for the words "loin" or "round" in the name. Swap in olive or canola oil for butter when sauteing, or try peanut butter on your toast in place of butter or cream cheese. At the same time, save sweets and desserts for special occasions.
When you do splurge on foods rich in saturated fat, eat less of them. By shrinking the size of your steak by 25 percent, you'll trim your saturated fat intake by 25 percent, too.
Are saturated fats bad for you? Not if you practice moderation. Try to reduce your current intake, and swap in some unsaturated fats where you can -- if you're already healthy, these simple steps alone should be all you need.