There’s a lot of conflicting information about saturated fats. Should I eat them or not?

The American Heart Association still recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science has proven it can raise your “bad” cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.

The more important thing to remember is your overall dietary picture. Saturated fats are just one piece of the puzzle and your lab value of total cholesterol doesn’t give you the whole picture either. There’s also HDL “good” cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, which when not within normal range, is risk for cardiovascular disease or stroke.


When you hear about the latest “diet of the day” or a new or odd-sounding theory about food, consider the source. The American Heart Association makes dietary recommendations only after carefully considering the latest scientific evidence. In general, you can’t go wrong eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fewer calories.

American Heart Association’s recommendations for dietary fat

The cardiovascular prevention guidelines were released in November 2013 by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. These guidelines are basically recommendations for healthcare providers across the nation, created through years of scientific research.

To lower cholesterol, the new guidelines recommend reducing saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day – the average of what an adult eats each day – that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat.

The “bad guy” in diet is always going to be saturated fat, unless The American Heart Association says otherwise through scientific testing. The majority of saturated fat comes from meats such as fatty beef, lamb, pork and poultry with skin. Full-fat dairy products, such as butter, cream, cheese and products made from whole or 2 percent milk, are also high in saturated fat.

The new guidelines also call for people to avoid trans fats (solid fats) after the Food and Drug Administration announced in November that it intends to ban trans fats in processed foods. Trans fats are currently found in many fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, pizza dough, pie crust, cookies and crackers.

By following the recommended dietary pattern, Americans don’t necessarily need to worry about constantly keeping track of how much sodium, saturated fat and trans fat they’re eating. Just eating a heart healthy diet which emphasis on plant foods will keep you at recommended levels.

Again, total dietary cholesterol and your total cholesterol lab value does not show the whole picture. We do know cholesterol is a fat and can’t dissolve in the blood, so it must be transported through your bloodstream by carriers called lipoproteins, which got their name because they’re made of fat (lipid) and proteins.

The two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells are low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol, along with one fifth of your triglyceride level, make up your total cholesterol count, which can be determined through a blood test.

LDL (Bad) Cholesterol

LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible, a condition called atherosclerosis which forms and blocks a narrowed artery, resulting in heart attach or stroke. Another condition called peripheral artery disease can develop when plaque buildup narrows an artery supplying blood to the legs.

Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that adults who need to lower their LDL-cholesterol – or “bad” cholesterol – should reduce their saturated and trans fat intake. Diet is only one factor affecting LDL cholesterol in the blood. Physical inactivity and being overweight or obese tends to increase bad cholesterol, as does aging. Because high cholesterol can run in families, heredity may also affect LDL levels in the blood.

LDL cholesterol is affected by diet. Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering your risk for heart disease and stroke. Your body naturally produces LDL cholesterol. Eating saturated fat and trans fat raises your blood cholesterol level even further.

HDL (Good) Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries. HDL acts as a scavenger, carrying LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is broken down and passed from the body. One-fourth to one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL.

A healthy level of HDL cholesterol may also protect against heart attack and stroke, while low levels of HDL cholesterol have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.


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Triglycerides are another type of fat, and they’re used to store excess energy from your diet. High levels of triglycerides in the blood are associated with atherosclerosis. Elevated triglycerides can be caused by overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories).

Underlying diseases or genetic disorders are sometimes the cause of high triglycerides. People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol (bad) level and a low HDL cholesterol (good) level. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Lp(a) Cholesterol

To break it down even further, there’s Lipoprotein a Lp(a), a genetic variation of LDL (bad) cholesterol. A high level of Lp(a) is a significant risk factor for the premature development of fatty deposits in arteries. Lp(a) isn’t fully understood, but it may interact with substances found in artery walls and contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits.

Hyperlipidemia and Cholesterol

Managing hyperlipidemia means controlling cholesterol and triglycerides. Hyperlipidemia is a mouthful, but it’s really just a fancy word for too many lipids – or fats – in the blood. That can cover many conditions, but for most people, it comes down to two well-known terms: high cholesterol and high triglycerides. Our bodies make and use a certain amount of cholesterol every day, but sometimes that system gets out of whack, either through genetics or diet.

If you are diagnosed with hyperlipidemia, your overall health status and risks will help guide treatment. Making healthy diet choices and increasing exercise are important first steps in lowering your cholesterol. Depending on your overall risk, your doctor may also prescribe medication in conjunction with healthy eating and regular exercise. The combination of diet and regular physical activity is important even if you’re on medication for high cholesterol, and it’s the most critical piece.

Just 40 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity done three to four times a week is enough to stay healthy. Brisk walking, swimming, bicycling or a dance class are excellent choices. What the guideline emphasizes is that any exercise is good for you. Many people don’t exercise at all, so exercising a bit more today than you did yesterday is a good way to train to the recommended time.

Some questions you may be asking now

Does my body need fats?

Yes, it does. Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth. They also help protect your organs and help keep your body warm. Fats help your body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones, too. Your body definitely needs fat.

What are the different kinds of dietary fat and which ones should I limit?

There are four major dietary fats in the foods we eat: saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. The four types have different chemical structures and physical properties. The bad fats, saturated and trans fats, tend to be more solid at room temperature (like a stick of butter), while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be more liquid (like liquid vegetable oil).

Fats can also have different effects on the cholesterol levels in your body. The bad fats, saturated fats and trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels in your blood. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and are beneficial when consumed as part of a healthy dietary pattern.

Do all fats have the same number of calories?

There are nine calories in every gram of fat, regardless of what type of fat it is. Fats are more energy-dense than carbohydrates and proteins, which provide four calories per gram. Consuming high levels of calories – regardless of the source – can lead to weight gain or being overweight. Consuming high levels of saturated or trans fats can also lead to heart disease and stroke. Health experts generally recommend replacing saturated fats and trans fats with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – while still maintaining a nutritionally-adequate diet.

Are all foods labeled “trans fat-free” healthy foods?

Not necessarily. Foods labeled “0 trans fat” or cooked with “trans fat-free” oils may contain a lot of saturated fats, which raise your bad cholesterol levels. “Trans fat-free” foods may also be unhealthy in terms of their general nutrient content. For example, baked goods also tend to be high in added sugars and low in nutrients.

Can fats be part of a healthy diet?

Eating foods with fat is definitely part of a healthy diet. Just remember to choose foods that provide good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and balance the amount of calories you eat from all foods with the amount of calories you burn.

Aim to eat a dietary pattern that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts; and limits intake of sodium, sweets, sugar sweetened beverages and red meats. Doing so means that your diet will be low in both saturated fats and trans fats.

To learn more, check out these links

Common misconceptions about cholesterol:

What do my cholesterol levels mean?

Heart Attack Risk Calculator


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