Don't Hold the Cheese! Why Saturated Fat May Not Be the Enemy

If you're a fan of olive oil, nuts, and avocados, you are probably well versed in the difference between so-called "healthy" unsaturated fats found in these foods and "bad for you" saturated fats found in meat, cheese, and butter. But a large new review analysis may have you rethinking what you know about fat.

Thinkstock | tassapon

The study, published in the The Annals of Internal Medicine, reviewed the results of 32 studies (with a total of over 530,000 participants) and found no correlation between higher saturated fat consumption and increased risk of heart disease, or less disease in those who ate more unsaturated fats. The study's lead author, Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury, said in The New York Times that the results suggest that "it's not saturated fat we should be worried about," a surprising finding considering that for years, nutrition guidelines have told us to limit saturated fat intake. The American Heart Association, for example, currently recommends limiting saturated fats to five to six percent of your total calories a day, or about 13 grams of fat (about two tablespoons of butter) if you're eating a 2,000-calorie diet.

Limiting saturated fat is supposed to help lower your LDL, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, also known as the "bad" cholesterol number that you get alongside the "good" number, called HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. Now, the new research suggests that the link between saturated fats and high LDLs isn't as clear cut as previously thought — in fact, the authors found that the LDL produced from saturated fats may not be the harmful kind, and certain saturated fats in milk and other dairy products may actually raise the level of HDL cholesterol as well. In addition, Dr. Chowdhury says that a high-sugar, high-carb diet could actually be worse for clogging your arteries than saturated fats.

What does this new study mean? When it comes to heart health, instead of counting the amount of saturated or other fats in your diet, experts recommend a simple, logical approach. Eat a balanced diet made of whole, fresh foods, and limit refined carbs and added sugars as much as you can. But it doesn't mean you should trade in your trail mix for bacon bits: poly- and monounsaturated fats like those found in nuts and oils are still beneficial to your health — research has found that they may help you burn belly fat, and more studies continue to determine whether omega-3s have a protective effect on your heart — and processed meats like bacon and sausage are still linked to a higher risk of disease.