For decades, health experts have urged us to step away from the butter, cheese and meat. The saturated fat in these foods, they warned, would clog our arteries and raise our risk for heart disease and stroke. In fact, the American Heart Association now advises limiting saturated fat intake to no more than five to six percent of total calories, meaning if you top your sandwich with two slices of cheddar, you’ll probably max out for the day. But is it really as dangerous as we’ve been led to believe?
The short answer: It’s complicated. A recent meta-analysis (which examines many previous studies and tries to draw broader conclusions), published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, found that people who ate more saturated fat did not develop heart disease more often than those who ate less. Although some foodies have interpreted this to mean “butter is back,” many health experts say it’s still smart to be cautious.
The Stats on Fat
“Right now we have more questions than answers,” says Marisa Moore, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an adjust professor at Georgia State University. She says that although the authors looked at numerous studies, the American Heart Association considers “thousands” before issuing guidelines. “Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat have been shown to lower cholesterol levels,” says Moore. “There’s no evidence that saturated fat helps us in any way.”
Cardiologist Stacey Rosen, M.D., vice president of the Katz Institute for Women’s Health at North Shore-LIJ Health System, agrees. “This report does not in any way suggest that you can eat red meat, butter, and cheese in excess without consequences,” she says. Rosen explains that while a quick glance at the headlines might make it seem like cutting back on saturated fat isn’t important, you have to consider what people are eating in place of it. Many Americans, she says, simply load up on carbs — which is also dangerous. “Increased intake of carbohydrates can have a negative effect on heart health by increasing ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels,” warns Rosen. “It can also lead to weight gain and pre-diabetes.”
So what’s the takeaway? Forget an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to specific nutrients and just aim for a balance of mostly healthy food. “A taste of butter is fine on occasion, but don’t put it on your toast every morning,” says Moore. Both she and Rosen are fans of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains and olive oil. “Healthy eating can decrease your risk for heart disease and many forms of cancer,” says Rosen. “It’s never too early to start making good choices.”