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The Skinny on Saturated Fat


Is Fat Bad for You?

  • Eating a high-fat, low-carb diet doesn't increase heart disease risk, according to a new study of more than 83,000 women in the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, women who got their fat mostly from vegetable sources like olive oil cut their heart disease risk by 30 percent.
  • The takeaway message: The quality of fats in your diet is more important than the quantity. "Don't try to rid your diet of fat," says Rita Mitchell, RD, a nutrition research associate at the University of California at Davis. "Your goal should be to limit saturated and trans fats and replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats."
  • Can't tell a trans from a poly? No worries. Our guide shows you which fats to avoid and which to eat more of.

The Label Says... Trans Fat

  • What it does: Research shows that trans fat is worse for you than other fats because it raises LDL (bad cholesterol) levels while lowering HDL (good cholesterol) levels and increasing inflammation, which is linked to heart disease and diabetes.
  • Where it comes from: Trans fat occurs naturally in red meat in small amounts, and it's made artificially for use in processed and bakery foods. Both types are equally bad for you, but people typically eat more of the artificial kind. A store-bought cookie can have between one and two grams of trans fat.
  • How much you need: The USDA recommends eating as little trans fat as possible; the American Heart Association suggests limiting intake to less than 1 percent of total daily calories. For a woman on a 2,000-calorie diet, that means consuming less than two grams per day.

The Label Says... Saturated

  • What it does: Increases your risk for heart disease by raising LDL levels. It also increases HDL levels, but the net effect is still negative.
  • Where it comes from: The main source in the American diet is cheese, followed by beef, whole milk, tropical oils such as coconut and palm, and ice cream.
  • How much you need: Limit it to 10 percent of your daily calories. (For someone eating 2,000 calories, that would be 20 grams.) One half-cup serving of premium vanilla ice cream has 11 grams.

The Label Says... Monounsaturated

  • What it does: Protects your heart by lowering LDL levels.
  • Where it comes from: Mainly plant oils, such as canola, olive, or peanut.
  • How much you need: Your total fat intake should be 20 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. Most of the fat you eat, says Mitchell, should come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated sources. Have a salad with sliced avocado and oil-and-vinegar dressing for lunch and salmon for dinner and you're set for the day.

The Label Says... Polyunsaturated (Including Omega-3s and Omega-6s)

  • What it does: Reduces your risk for heart disease by decreasing LDL levels.
  • Where it comes from: Sunflower, corn, soybean, and walnut oils, as well as sesame seeds. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish (like salmon) and walnuts; omega-6s are in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oil.
  • How much you need: Again, 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat, mainly from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated sources.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2007.