Frequently Asked Questions About Saturated Fats

Updated:Jul 21,2014

There’s a lot of conflicting information about saturated fats. Should I eat them or not?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science has proven it can raise your “bad” cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.

The more important thing to remember is the overall dietary picture. Saturated fats are just one piece of the puzzle. In general, you can’t go wrong eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fewer calories. 

When you hear about the latest “diet of the day” or a new or odd-sounding theory about food, consider the source. The American Heart Association makes dietary recommendations only after carefully considering the latest scientific evidence.

How do we know saturated fats can lead to heart disease? Scientifically sound research dating to the 1950s has proven the link between saturated fats and LDL-cholesterol, which increases heart disease risk. This body of evidence comes from the most rigorous kind of dietary studies that precisely measure what people eat.

Significant science on the subject came out as recently in November. That’s when the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology issued new diet and lifestyle guidelines that recommended limiting saturated fat to 5-6 percent of total calories. The guidelines were developed by some of the nation’s top scientists, who for five years studied existing research to help healthcare professionals treat their patients. 

A recent study said saturated fat and heart disease may not be so closely related. Is this study wrong?
A report appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine that raised questions about the saturated fat-heart disease link. However, that report has been heavily criticized by experts in the scientific community and the authors have issued several corrections and explanations.

Technically, the report compared 20 previously published studies and concluded that evidence does not support guidelines that encourage low intake of saturated fatty acids. Critics of the report also say the authors misinterpreted the conclusions of several studies.

The American Heart Association isn’t the only leading health organization to find a definitive link between saturated fats and heart disease. Eleven authoritative bodies – including the World Health Organization; the Institute of Medicine; the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom; and the European Union – independently reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded yet again that saturated fat is associated with heart disease.

Does cutting back on fats lead to obesity because people eat more carbohydrates instead?
The obesity epidemic is caused by people eating more calories than they need, but many factors contribute to this problem.

As for cutting out fat, how people replace those calories is the key factor. It’s healthy to replace saturated fats with whole grain foods and healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. However, some people cut saturated fat and replace it with refined carbohydrates such as sugary cakes and cookies. And that can contribute to obesity. (Currently two of every three adults in the U.S. is obese or overweight.) Research shows that a diet rich in refined, simple carbohydrates is equally if not more detrimental to health than a fatty diet. 

Is all fat bad for you? Is it good to limit every kind of fat? Not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats increase risk for heart disease, but that’s not the case with unsaturated fats known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants.

However, it’s important to remember that unsaturated fats do contain calories. And too many calories can lead to weight gain. Still, unsaturated fats are generally better. Recent studies concluded that people who ate more omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, the type found in oily fish, had lower incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. That condition can lead to cirrhosis. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats also have been found to reduce the risk of gallstones.

Does the American Heart Association recommend a low-fat diet? No. The American Heart Association recommends a healthy dietary pattern, with between 25-35 percent of total calories from fats. That is considered a moderate-fat diet. Saturated and trans fats should be replaced with healthier fats, such as poly and mono-unsaturated fats.

What are the American Heart Association Dietary Recommendations? The recommendations developed by the American Heart Association are based on the latest scientific evidence, and are shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and other health problems. Take a closer look at the Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations.
What about trans fats? 
Most Americans grew up eating foods containing trans fat without knowing it was there. Before trans fat was added to labels in 2006, you could only recognize it under its alias, “partially hydrogenated oil,” on the list of ingredients.

However, we now know that trans fat is harmful to our health. In fact, in November, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that trans fats don’t meet the criteria for their “generally recognized as safe” category, starting the process to dramatically reduce them from the food supply.

The American Heart Association was the first major health organization to specify a daily limit: Less than 1 percent of calories from trans fat, and has been at the forefront of helping bring trans-fat consumption down in the United States.


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