Sausage, hot dogs, burgers, French fries — all of these ballpark-friendly eats have something in common: Saturated fats. Whether you're trying to be smarter about your heart health or simply shed a few pounds — limiting high saturated fat foods can be a total game-changer.
"High saturated fat intake is linked to increases in low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — or 'bad' — cholesterol over time," explains registered dietician Mariska Gordon of Copeman Healthcare. "A diet rich in saturated fats can lead to plaque buildup in our arteries and in turn, heart disease."
But where is it exactly lurking in the American diet and what steps can we take to best reduce our intake? Here, the experts give us the rundown.
What's So Bad About Saturated Fat?
There are many different types of fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and trans fats — made by heating liquid vegetable oil according to Harvard Health Publishing. Unsaturated fats — which are typically liquid at room temperature — have an excellent place in your diet. When consumed in place of saturated fat, these can lower the levels of total cholesterol and LDL in the blood, which can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Experts will tell you that you consume a diet rich in saturated fats, that can encourage blockages in the heart and arteries, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Still, the research is a tad on the inconclusive side. One March 2010 analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition couldn't draw significant evidence that a diet rich in dietary saturated fat would increase risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) or cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Americans should consume less than six percent of their calories from saturated fats, according to the American Heart Association. This means that if you consume a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 120 calories should come from saturated fats — roughly 13 grams a day. "Think of it this way: Less than 5 percent daily value saturated fat per serving is a little, but more than 15 percent is a lot," says Gordon.
What's the Right Approach?
Generally speaking, the more you use vegetable oils in place of solid (saturated) fats in cooking, the better, according to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 to 2020. A diet rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats is the ultimate goal.
Sources of polyunsaturated fats include corn oil, sunflower oil ad safflower oil among others, according to Harvard Medical School. These fats also provide nutrients to help maintain and develop cells in the body, says Gordon. Sources of monounsaturated fat include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados and many nuts.
If you're going to consume saturated fats, do it sparingly. Also keep in mind: Some plant-based fats — like palm and coconut oil — are high in saturated fat.
"No food containing fat has all of it coming from purely saturated fat," Gordon cautions. "It's proportions that matter. Consciously choose foods that have more poly and monounsaturated fat over saturated fat; that's what's important. "
Go-To Tips for Fat Consumption
Again: Some fat in the diet is just fine. Hoping to shift your fat intake in a smarter direction? Here, Gordon offers up these easy-to-follow guidelines:
- Choose skinless poultry and fish more often than pork and beef-based dishes
- Cook with vegetable, canola, olive or avocado oils rather than coconut oil, butter or margarine
- Choose low-fat dairy products
- Limit creamy sauces and dressings
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020"
- Harvard Medical School: "The Truth about Fats: the Good, the Bad, and the In-Between"
- American Heart Association: "Survey: More Than Half of U.S. Employees who Typically Eat Lunch During Work Hours Struggle to Make it Healthy"
- Harvard Health: "Types of Fat"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Nutrition Facts Label: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fat"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease"