The Truth About Saturated Fats
The Different Kinds of Fat
So why, despite the explosion of positive study findings, is saturated fat still considered evil? One major factor: It's not a single fat. There are more than two dozen kinds, and "they're not created equal," says David Katz, MD, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. So it's difficult to make a general recommendation about saturated fats as a whole. Yet that's exactly what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans do. Here are the four major types of saturated fats in our diet, according to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee:
(1) Palmitic and (2) myristic acids
At first glance, palmitic acid (found in palm oil, butter, and eggs) and myristic acid (found in cheese, milk, butter, and beef) fit the bad-guy profile. They appear to increase inflammation and LDL cholesterol. But here's where things gets tricky: The rise in LDL is at least partly due to an increase in the size of each LDL particle in the body, which may not be as dangerous as an increase in the number of particles. These saturated fats also raise HDL in the process, so the net effect may be neutral, not bad.
(3) Stearic acid
This saturated fat, present in chocolate and beef, doesn't raise LDL at all. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee stated in its scientific report that the acid should not be considered a "cholesterol-raising" saturated fat. (Though the committee itself continues to recommend cutting back on saturated fat and doesn't mention stearic acid. Confused? Us too.) In fact, this type of saturated fat is an important reason dark chocolate gets the green light from most health experts. "The stearic acid in dark chocolate has no negative effect on blood cholesterol," Dr. Katz says.
(4) Lauric acid
There's some indication that lauric acid may not be harmful either. It's found in coconut oil, the latest superfood, which has been touted to do everything from lower stress to whittle your waist. But those claims are overblown. "Lauric acid is probably an innocuous fat," Dr. Katz says. "But no studies indicate that coconut has any edge over other oils that we know confer a benefit, like olive oil."
Some researchers believe that saturated fat may simply be a convenient scapegoat for the true problem with our diets: the food we eat. The top three sources of saturated fat for Americans are cheese, pizza, and such grain-based desserts as cookies and cakes. The foods that saturated fat is found in might actually contribute to the risk to your health. Case in point: Two slices of pizza with meat toppings at a popular chain not only pack 20 grams of saturated fat but also nearly 1,000 calories, more than a day's supply of sodium and a gram of trans fat. In a recent study that linked red meat to a higher rate of death, processed meat, which is high in sodium and other preservatives, was found to be especially dangerous. "We should stop focusing on just one chemical in food and instead look at the overall package it comes in," Dr. Krauss explains.
Modern diets are a veritable perfect storm of unhealthiness, according to Dr. Mozaffarian. He and his colleagues analyzed the number of deaths from various risk factors and singled out five dietary patterns to study: high in trans fat, high in saturated fat, high in sodium, low in fruits and vegetables, and low in omega-3 fatty acids from fish (all pretty darn common in our superprocessed society). When they looked at deaths associated with each pattern, diets high in saturated fat came in, well, dead last. "If you eat a lot of salt and trans fats and few fruits, vegetables and fish, you're at a high risk for heart disease no matter what your saturated fat intake is," Dr. Mozaffarian says. "Conversely, higher or lower saturated fat will have a small effect if you're doing everything else right."
Bottom line: Saturated fat doesn't deserve its bad-guy reputation. That's why shifting the focus to more pressing dietary problems -- for example, too many refined carbs or a dearth of produce -- is critical, experts say. Read on for eight easy ways to do just that. And pass the dark chocolate, please.
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