Saturated Fats: Finding a Healthy Balance

Saturated fat's place in diet stirs debate

man reading label in grocery store

With the seemingly endless barrage of conflicting media reports that declare saturated fats bad and carbohydrates worse and share only a rigid approach to diet, it’s no wonder consumers are confused.

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Good fat/bad fat

Recently the debate focused on saturated fat and a U.K. study drew fire for its assertion that saturated animal fats can’t be all that bad. The authors supported the claim, reasoning that despite having lowered their consumption of saturated fat, the public is heavier than ever and still at risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Other experts pointed out faulty leaps of logic in the article and focused attention on an important issue: what to substitute in place of those animal fats that are associated with clogged arteries and heart disease?

Best intentions, unintended consequences

Over many years, targeted studies and meta-analyses have shown that consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol is linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease.

With all the focus on the dangers of a diet high in saturated fats, some experts neglected to emphasize the importance of substituting lean protein and fresh vegetables and fruits for those unhealthy fats.

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Less fat, but more calories and sugar

Food manufacturers, swept up in the low-fat marketing frenzy, cut fat from food products, but then added lots of additional sugar and carbohydrates to improve the products’ taste. The result was less fat, but often more calories and more sugar.

High sugar consumption can lead to obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and heart disease. Unfortunately, the narrow focus on cutting fats to improve the health of the public hasn’t helped narrow the typical American’s waistline.

To the contrary, we are heavier than ever and diabetes rates are increasing, with the fastest increases seen in children.

Striking a balance

What to do? Use a measure of common sense and add a bit of healthy fat back into the diet.

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Dietitian Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, of Cleveland Clinic Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation, recommends the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein such as fish, nuts, whole grains and healthy fats, such as olive oil.

“We do not recommend completely avoiding saturated fat, but instead emphasize swapping out saturated fats for monounsaturated fats in order to meet the recommendation of 7 percent of total calories from saturated fat, and up to 20 percent of calories from monounsaturated fat per the American Heart Association and National Cholesterol Education Program (part of National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute),” Patton says.  

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