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Food and Nutrition: There's more to dieting than just reducing the amount of saturated fat you eat

Sources of fat in our eating appears to always be in the news, and confusion about the types of fat we should consume comes with it.

Saturated fat, which comes from animal sources, is solid at room temperature and is more of a health problem. When it comes to the health values of various fats, it’s about substitutions. If you remove one type of fat, what are you replacing it with?

Cutting back on saturated fats can be good for your health if you replace it with healthy fats. If you remove saturated fat and replace it with refined carbohydrates, there will be a detrimental effect. When looking at the big picture of our eating, we need to think about food quality — including food sources and dietary patterns — rather than only nutrition.

All foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats. Even though foods such as chicken and nuts have a small amount of saturated fat, it is much less than the amount found in beef, cheese and ice cream. Saturated fat is mainly found in animal foods, but a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10 percent of calories each day from saturated fat. The American Heart Association goes even further, recommending limiting saturated fat to no more than 6 percent.

Here is what you need to understand when it comes to your eating: cutting back on saturated fat will likely have no benefit if you replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates. Eating refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fat does not lower bad LDL cholesterol, but it does lower the good HDL cholesterol and increases triglycerides. The net effect is as bad for the heart as eating too much saturated fat.

In the U.S., the biggest sources of saturated fat in our eating are pizza, cheese, whole-fat dairy foods, meat products (such as sausage and bacon), baked products made with solid fats and Mexican fast food dishes.

The overarching message is that cutting back on saturated fat can be good for your health if you replace saturated fat with good fats, especially polyunsaturated fats. Eating good fats in place of saturated fat lowers the bad LDL cholesterol and improves the ratio of total cholesterol to good HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.

Eating good fats in place of saturated fat can also help prevent insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. While saturated fats may not be as harmful as once thought, evidence clearly shows that unsaturated fat remains the healthiest type.

Unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, are considered beneficial fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play a number of other beneficial roles. Unsaturated fats are found in plants such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.

Monounsaturated fats are found in high concentrations canola, olive and peanut oils, as well as avocados, nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts and pecans) and seeds (such as pumpkin and sesame).

Polyunsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in corn, soybean and sunflower oils as well as walnuts, flaxseed and fish. Canola oil, though higher in monounsaturated fat, is also a good source of polyunsaturated fat.

Omega-3 fats are an important type of polyunsaturated fat. The body can’t make these, so they must come from food. An excellent way to get omega-3 fats is by eating fish two to three times a week, but not fried.

For more nutrition and healthy eating tips from Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, subscribe to the Food & Nutrition email newsletter.

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