Nourishing Thoughts

A Case For Saturated Fats

Americans have long been told that saturated fats are to be avoided, because they lead to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. New studies are emerging, however, that suggest they aren’t so bad after all. Looking carefully at both sides of the debate can help shed light on which choices are best.

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products, such as butter, bacon, fatty meats, lard and milk fat. However, they can also be found in some plant products, most notably coconut oil and palm oil. If it is a natural product and is solid at room temperature, it is most likely a saturated fat.

According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, published in 2010, we should strive to get fewer than 10 percent of our calories from saturated fats. Given an average 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 22 grams of saturated fats per day. Most of the saturated fats in American’s diets come from regular cheese, pizza, grain- and dairy-based desserts, chicken and chicken mixed dishes, sausages and bacon, and burgers. For comparison’s sake, an ounce of Cheddar cheese contains 6 grams, a Big Mac has 10 grams and a 10-ounce ribeye has 28 grams.

The dietary guidelines state we should avoid foods containing saturated fats when possible, and strive to get most of our fats from unsaturated sources, such as those found in seafood, nuts, seeds, and oils. Historically, these were shown to have a protective effect on the heart.

These claims have been called into question lately, as proponents of the paleo diet claim to have seen vast improvements on their cholesterol and blood pressure while eating large quantities of saturated fats. Is this just anecdotal evidence? Recent studies say no. A review of 72 studies looking for links between dietary fat intake and coronary disease found no definitive link between saturated fats and heart disease. The studies also did not find a protective effect from the so-called “heart healthy” omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.

We must be careful when reading information like this to not overgeneralize. Stating that saturated fats may not be as unhealthy as previously thought is not license to overindulge in fast food and ice cream. The 2010 dietary guidelines state that saturated fats unhealthy, but consider the sources they proceeded to list. The main source in our diets is junk foods, either containing or typically paired with highly refined carbohydrates.

However, consider coconut oil. The popularity of this solid fat has exploded over the past year, with dozens of health benefits attributed to it, including heart health. But it is 92 percent saturated fat! Further studies certainly need to be done to help determine why coconut oil is a beneficial saturated fat, but for now, it’s safe to say that saturated fats as a whole are not a dietary villain, especially when eaten along with other whole, natural foods.

Despite the low-fat craze that began in the 1980s, dietary fat is not a significant cause of body fat. Yes, dietary fats contain more calories per gram than proteins and carbohydrates, but they also keep you full longer and make your food more satisfying. In other words, you will actually feel fuller and eat fewer calories overall when you are eating a diet higher in fat.

Unfortunately, there are no easy rules for nutrition. Just as we eventually discovered that low fat was not the answer, a super high-fat diet will not lead to ultimate health either. The basic, common sense guidelines hold true—eat a varied diet based on real, unprocessed foods. There’s no need to steer clear of saturated fats as long as they fit that description. Sorry, pizza and ice cream don’t count.

Nourishing Thoughts is written by Julie Miller, an expert on nutrition and fitness instructor at the C.W. Avery Family YMCA.

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