Get the Skinny on Saturated Fat

Nutrition advice can seem confusing and ever changing. For years the advice has been to limit cholesterol and saturated fat for a heart healthy diet, but recent studies indicate that might be too simplistic. While new advice may seem to contradict previous nutrition knowledge, it is actually building upon it and adding to our understanding of how foods impact health.

For many years nutrition research has evaluated single nutrients in isolation, and eating advice has followed suit, i.e., avoid saturated and trans fat, get more omega 3, and vitamin D. This advice has lead to high intakes of supplements, confusion about what nutrients are contained in what foods, and frustration when that miracle pill/nutrient becomes outdated a month later. So WHY does this happen? First, science, especially the science of how food and nutrients are studied, is ever changing. As we learn more about the composition of foods, metabolism and genetics, we also learn how to conduct research in more nuanced and elegant ways. So as the science evolves, nutrition advice must also evolve. We are always learning about the synergy of food components, that is that thewhole is more than just its combined parts. For example the carotene contained in a supplement does not have the health benefit as eating a whole carrot.

So as nutrition information comes to light, be sure to remember that there is no miracle pill or nutrient. A healthy diet is made of up whole foods that work together to create a symphony of health. It’s about balance.

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With that stage set, let’s take a look at what nutrition science is revealing about fat – particularly saturated fat.

The latest research on saturated fats indicates that our previous belief that we needed to limit saturated fat for heart health may be too simplistic. A recent meta-analysis looking at 78 different research studies involving fatty acid intake, fatty acids in the blood, and supplementation of fatty acids found that saturated fats may not be as closely linked to heart disease as previously claimed, and that a particular type of saturated fat found in dairy foods (margaric acid) may actually decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Summation of 78 Study Results:

  • Total saturated fat intake was not associated with coronary risk
  • Total and individual mono-unsaturated fatty acids were not associated with coronary risk
  • Dietary intake of total omega-6 fatty acids was not associated with coronary disease
  • Dietary intake of long chain omega-3 fatty acids was associated with lower risk of coronary disease, Effect not seen with supplements.
  • Dietary intake of total trans fat was associated with increased risk of coronary disease.
  • Margaric acid (saturated fat found in dairy) was associated with reduced risk of coronary disease
  • EHA and DHA (long chain omega-3 acids) associated with lower risk of coronary disease. Effect not seen with supplements.
  • Arachidonic acid (an omega 6 acid) was associated with lower risk of coronary disease. Effect not seen with supplements.

These studies solidified some of what we already new. Foods containing trans fats may increase your risk for coronary disease, foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, EPA and arachidonic acid may decrease your risk. We also gained new insights including: total saturated fats have no effect on your risk, except margaric acid containing foods (dairy) which may decrease risk, and supplements do not have the same effects as whole food.


Continue to eat fish, use healthy oils like olive and canola oils, and limit foods containing artificial trans fat. Keep diary in your diet. Even whole or full fat diary can have a place in your diet offering great taste, texture, improved satiety, and as this new research shows, small amounts of saturated fat may provide health benefits.

  • Fun Fact: Whole milk contains just 3.5% fat, only slightly more than 2% reduced fat milk. Full fat dairy products do have slightly more calories, so if you are watching total calorie intake you will need to consume a bit less or choose low fat

Remember to focus on eating whole foods as the best way to meet your nutrient needs. There is a beneficial synergy among all of the nutrients contained in whole foods that we do not fully understand. When creating a meal plan a good starting place would be If you would like more information, meet with a local registered dietitian, who can help you create a meal plan suited to your genetic disposition, disease state/risk, and preferences.


Additional Saturated Fat Information

More Information on Dairy

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