Fat is an essential part of your diet, supplying your body with energy and substances necessary for it to function properly. Not all fats are equal, however, and some forms of fat cause more harm than benefits. To eat a healthy diet, you need to be able to identify sources of saturated fat as well as learn how to substitute healthier sources of unsaturated fat.
Saturated fats get their name from their chemical makeup. All fats consist of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms, but in saturated fats, all of the carbon atoms are bonded only to hydrogen atoms, not to other carbon atoms. Thus, they are "saturated" with hydrogen. This composition causes them to be solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. This structure also causes these fats to build up in your heart and arteries, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems. As such, the American Heart Association suggests limiting them to no more than 7 percent of your total daily caloric intake, which would be about 16 g in a 2,000-calorie diet.
You'll find saturated fats most commonly in animal products, particularly beef, lamb, pork and poultry. The visible, white fat on cuts of meat is the most obvious example, but poultry skins also are high in saturated fat. Whole milk also is high in saturated fat — 1 cup contains about 4.5 g — as are products made with it, such as cheese, butter and ice cream. Most plant-based cooking oils are unsaturated fats, because they are liquid at room temperature, but some, particularly palm oil and coconut oil, consist mostly of saturated fat. Baked goods made with these oils and food fried in these oils, therefore, are high in saturated fat.
Eating foods high in saturated fat raises both your overall cholesterol levels as well as your low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol levels. It raises your high-density lipoprotein or "good" cholesterol levels as well, but unsaturated fats will do this while lowering your LDL levels. The LDL cholesterol is what can build up in your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fat also is calorie-dense, meaning too much of it will contribute to obesity, which puts you at further risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and numerous other ailments.
By being able to identify examples of saturated fat, you easily can reduce it in your diet. When cooking meat, you can choose leaner cuts with less visible fat, and trim off as much of the fat as possible. With poultry, you can eat it skinless. Saturated fats will float to the top of soups and stews, so you can skim that off before eating. With dairy products, you can choose low-fat or nonfat varieties. Keep in mind that 2 percent milk means milk that is 2 percent fat content, not milk that has 2 percent of the fat of whole milk. With baked goods and desserts, check labels when possible to see saturated fat content.
- American Heart Association: Saturated Fats
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Saturated Fat
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: National Nutrient Database
- Harvard School of Public Health: Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good
- MayoClinic.com: Dietary Facts — Know which Types to Choose