Saturated fat may not be bad for your heart, but does it belong in a balanced diet?


While dietitians have long praised the good fat in avocados, olive oil, and nuts, they’ve universally recommended avoiding foods high in saturated fat.   Because saturated fat has the ability to raise LDL (bad cholesterol), it’s been thought to increase your risk for developing heart disease.   Yet while some studies supported this association, the findings were far from conclusive, and may not have taken into account other dietary factors (like the potentially negative effect refined carbohydrates can have on the heart) or the fact that saturated fat can actually raise good cholesterol (HDL).


Still the idea stuck: saturated fat is bad fat.  But now, emerging research is shedding new light on the debate.  A scientific review of studies involving more than 600,000 people found no significant link between dietary saturated fat and heart disease, suggesting that we don’t need to shun foods like red meat, butter, and whole milk for our heart’s sake.  But before you go hog-wild, here’s what you should know about popular fatty foods.


Meat. There’s a difference between unprocessed meat like beef, lamb, and pork, and the processed varieties that include sausage, bacon and lunch meat.   One serving of the former (3.5 oz. daily) wasn’t associated with a higher risk of heart disease while 2 oz. of the latter (two slices of bacon) was associated with a 42% increased risk.  The main culprit might not be the saturated fat after all, but rather the high amounts of sodium and preservatives (which promote artery hardening) in processed meat.  Eat smart: Sticking to one to two servings of red meat per week shouldn’t have a major impact on your health if you eat well the rest of the time.   Consume most of your protein from sources proved to be beneficial, like nuts and cold water fish rich in unsaturated fatty acids.

Whole Milk.  While full-fat milk contains 66 more calories and 4 more grams of fat per cup than nonfat milk, skim might not mean slim.  Whole milk may help to control appetite, as the extra fat is satiating and it’s possible that we may get fuller on less.  Eat Smart: Portions still matter, so drink no more than two cups of whole mile per day, or less if you have other sources of dairy like cheese or yogurt.

Butter.  Butter and lard (pork fat) are back in favor as natural, minimally processed sources of fat (as opposed to say, margarine).  Lard is actually lower in saturated fat than butter and contains double the amount of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids.  Eat Smart.  Consume these spreads in small serving sizes (a couple teaspoons over steamed broccoli, for example) and within a healthy, whole-food -based diet.

Cheese.  Could Gouda be good for you?  People who eat about 2 ounces or more cheese daily have a lower risk of developing diabetes compared with those who ate it sparingly.  One hypothesis is when cheese is fermented; it produces good bacteria that may help reduce bad cholesterol.  Eat Smart.  Cheese often keeps very unhealthy company, like fast food burgers and takeout pizza, so aim to include it alongside healthier fare.  And keep in mind that not all cheese is created equal: Swiss is naturally low in sodium, and Parmesan is high in protein, while feta and blue cheese are so big in flavor that a little can go a long way.

Jessica Girdwain