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New research has overturned some long-held ideas about good fats and bad fats. It used to be gospel truth: Saturated fat is bad. New studies suggest that, while no one would call saturated fats “good,” in moderation they may not be so hard on your heart after all. What’s more, replacing saturated fats with the wrong kinds of foods — such as the highly refined carbohydrates in white bread, white rice, pastries, and sugary candies or desserts — may actually increase your heart disease danger.
How can the average person make sense of the new research? Rather than banish saturated fat, many experts say it’s more important to eat plenty of vegetables, grains, and fish, as well as a variety of fats in moderate amounts. Here are 5 tips to remember when you’re trying to fit fats and oils into your heart-healthy diet.
1. Don’t Obsess Over Saturated Fat
Health experts began recommending cutting back on saturated fat when they discovered that it raises LDL, the “bad” cholesterol. That advice made perfect sense. High LDL is linked to heart disease.
The focus on slashing saturated fat may have been misguided. “Recommendations to focus on saturated fat were based on a single biomarker, LDL cholesterol,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. “But we now know there are many other important biomarkers for heart disease risk.”
When you look at all of the biomarkers together, he says, the effects of saturated fat aren’t as bad as once thought. Indeed, reviewing the evidence, Mozaffarian and his colleague Renata Micha found that levels of saturated fat have very little impact on cardiovascular risk.
Americans currently consume about 11.5% of calories from saturated fat. If we cut that roughly in half, to 6.5%, we might lower our risk of heart disease by only about 10%, says Mozaffarian.
Unfortunately, during the low-fat craze, many people replaced saturated fat with fat-free products made of highly-refined carbohydrates and often too much salt. Studies show that substituting refined carbohydrates for saturated fat may end up increasing our heart disease risk.
Does this mean you can eat as much butter and cheese as you like? No. The American Heart Association still recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of total calories. Fats of all kinds are high in calories, so it’s wise not to overindulge. The new findings simply reinforce the idea that it’s also important to be wary of buying foods that claim to be fat-free or low-fat. Check the label to see if they are high in salt and refined carbohydrates, such white flour and sugar.
2. Choose Heart Healthy Plant-Based Oils
Most experts still agree that it’s smart to replace some saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Plant-based oils like olive oil or canola oil are a healthier choice than butter, for instance.