Saturated Fats: what to Know Now

Aug. 13, 2015 -- Saturated fats, like those found in red meat and high-fat ice cream, may not be so bad for your heart health after all. They aren't linked to heart disease, according to a new report in BMJ.

So is that good news? Not so fast. That's only part of the story, according to two nutrition experts: Frank Hu, MD, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, and Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University.

People who cut back on saturated fat often start eating more refined, unhealthy carbohydrates like white bread, they say. And those aren’t heart-healthy, either.

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Q: Does this new report mean we can eat all the saturated fat we want?

“Not really,” Hu says. “I think we need to separate the results carefully.”

“When people reduce their saturated fat content, if they replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, and white rice, it is not going to do any good, because we know too much refined carbohydrates is also a risk factor for heart disease,” he says.

The study authors recommend that when you cut back on saturated fat, carefully consider what foods you eat instead.

“If you compare saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, both are bad. They are basically equal in their relation with heart disease.”

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The study doesn’t provide convincing evidence that saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease, Lichtenstein says. If you don't consider what you replace saturated fat with, then “we can learn little from this study,” she says.

Q: What is the bottom line?

“The best advice we can give people is to limit saturated fatty acids [such as] meat and dairy fat (a.k.a. butter) and replace it with polyunsaturated fatty acid, such as soybean and corn oils, and not carbohydrates,” Lichtenstein says.

Hu agrees. He says that if you replace saturated fats in your diet with healthy fats -- vegetable oils, nuts, seafood -- it will lower your heart disease risk.

Q: How much saturated fat can we eat and stay healthy?

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