“Is butter a carb?” —Regina George
- Dietary fat, especially saturated fat, has been considered unhealthy for the past several decades
- New research shows the cardiovascular risks of eating saturated fat may be overblown
- Certain types of saturated fats might actually be good for you
- Balance the amount—and the type—of fats you eat for a healthy diet
Is there a phrase that gets a brisker workout these days than “healthy fats”? Avo toast rules brunch menus and Instagram feeds, EVOO flows like wine over roasted veggies, and nut butters whir to the beat of smoothie blenders.
But naturally, that brings us to the idea of “unhealthy” fats. What to make of those saturated varieties—the meats, the dairies? The fats that we’ve been told for decades will raise our cholesterol, clog our arteries, and, ultimately, cause heart disease?
Studies have been quietly accumulating over the past few years that suggest the truth about saturated fat is more complicated—and less damning—than previously thought. In fact, the saturated stuff may be necessary, even. . .healthy. Well, be still our beating hearts.
The Debate Over Saturated Fat
This new doctrine hit the big time late last summer, when the journal Lancet published a decade-long study looking at the eating patterns of 135,000 people from 18 countries. The startling results got the scientific community squabbling and inspired a flurry of incendiary headlines (“Low-Fat Diet Could Kill You,” for one).
The study found not only that those who consumed the least fat and most carbohydrates had a 28 percent higher risk of dying over those 10 years, but also that those eating the most fat had a 23 percent lower risk for death. More pointedly, those results held steady across all kinds of fats—including saturated fats, which showed an additional benefit of being associated with a lower stroke risk. And low levels of saturated fat actually increased mortality risk.
Shocking news, and not everyone is on the same page. The American Heart Association still recommends that saturated fat be less than 6 percent of an adult’s daily calorie consumption, a tiny amount considering that the average saturated-fat consumption in the U.S. is around 14 percent. But altering dietary recommendations can be like turning an ocean liner that’s going full steam ahead: It’s a slow and unwieldy process.
“There has been a lot of discussion of the evils of saturated fats for many years,” says Rita Redberg, M.D., a cardiologist at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and the editor of JAMA Internal Medicine. “Reeducation based on new knowledge and understanding takes time.”
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Meanwhile, our efforts to avoid sat fats have led us to try to replace them—with mixed results. The first suggestion, carbs, turned out to be catastrophic, with many experts now suggesting it triggered our current obesity crisis. Now the anti-sat-fat camp recommends “replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat as much as reasonably possible,” says Walter Willet, M.D., a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University, who has studied diet’s effect on health for 40 years.
But concerns are arising about unsaturated fats as well, particularly one category of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): certain vegetable oils, such as corn and soybean, that are high in omega-6 fatty acids (as opposed to those high in omega-3s—like olive oil—which are clearly health-promoting).
The thicket of conflicting messages is frustrating. But there is a way through the brambles, a path that follows the evidence and weaves in common sense too. Because fat is as essential as it is delicious, we dove deeper into what kind you should be putting on your plate.
Eat a high-fat Mediterranean diet. Reduce stress. Walk at least 22 minutes a day. Take the focus off saturated fat. When Redberg and two other cardiologists published an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last April proclaiming all of the above, the backlash from old-guard scientists was swift and stinging, labeling the advice “bizarre” and “simplistic.”