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How Much Saturated Fat Should Be in My Diet?

Bad fat? Nah, just misunderstood.
Paul Taylor / Getty

The Final Word gives you a concise take on a complicated issue. For more context, read the full stories here and here .

Before the days when the American snack industry became fixated on “gluten-free” and “non-GMO” labels, there was an equal, if not more rabid, desire to eliminate fat from food. The “Snackwell phenomenon,” it was called—this obsession with low-calorie and low-fat processed food. And Americans were lost in the (0% fat) sauce, consuming these cookies and chips by the boxful because they’d bought into the hype. Experts now say that nutrition advice from those decades was neither accurate nor reliable. Here’s why fat—including the heavily demonized saturated fat—is actually not the devil.


What you’ve heard:
If you were alive in the 1990s, you probably think that saturated fat—found largely in dairy products and meat—will kill you. The origins of this fear was a 1977 hearing on health that resulted in dietary guidelines claiming that saturated fat raised “bad” LDL cholesterol. The concern was that high levels of LDL was largely responsible for heart-disease risk.

Those guidelines advised Americans to eat carbs instead of foods like meat, cheese, or oil. And as mentioned above, the food industry started hawking fat-free versions of foods like sour cream and yogurt, often subbing in fat with sugar. We started eating these foods with abandon. And right there, friends, is where the obesity epidemic began.

What the research says:
It’s become abundantly clear that fat is a key part of a healthy diet, for reasons that range from satiety to brain function to weight loss. Of course, the mono- and polyunsaturated fats you find in fish and plants are excellent “good fats,” but saturated fat is part of the equation too. Three prominent cardiologists recently set the record straight about saturated fat in a report titled Saturated fat does not clog the arteries. In it, they point out that there appears to be no connection between the consumption of saturated fat and heart disease, stroke, or diabetes . Further, there’s a growing consensus among nutrition experts that we should jettison refined carbohydrates and get more calories from foods high in saturated and unsaturated fat.

Bottom line: How much saturated fat should I be eating?
Like with most things in life, moderation is the main thing here. Whole milk and a wheel of brie are not what most experts would consider “healthy” foods, but evidence shows that full-fat dairy has an edge over the low-fat stuff, since it’s more filling and prevents overeating. And regardless of what the US Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association recommend, nutrition experts advise following a much more loose, holistic approach: Don’t worry too much about how many calories you’re getting from fat or carbs or protein. Instead focus on eating whole, real foods and de-emphasizing the processed, packaged stuff. You’ll eat some saturated fat in the process, and you can feel good about that.

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