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Dietary changes can be one of the most effective ways to lower your risk of heart disease, and reducing saturated fat intake has been scientifically linked to a reduction in cardiovascular risk.
But what happens when this link is questioned by a single study, contradicting dietary guidelines reflected by decades of consistent scientific research? The result is consumer confusion. But before you chow down on blocks of cheese and other foods rich in saturated fat, it’s important to read beneath the headlines. The bottom line (and guideline) remains the same: Limiting total saturated fat in your diet is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular illness.
A new study in the Journal of Epidemiology suggests there's no link between intake of full-fat milk or other dairy products and heart disease risk or all-cause death.
What you need to know:
This study is not newly gathered information, but an accumulation and summary of 29 earlier published studies and nearly 800,000 participants. While that sounds like a lot of information, combining these results also has limitations, perhaps most importantly regarding how the information on food intake was acquired.
All of this involves participant recall of intake using a variety of surveys and questionnaires. Factors like portion, frequency and type of dairy product were all different — which creates a wide range of variability that the investigators had to standardize, making many assumptions to provide some internal consistency.
Their main conclusion was that there was no association between full-fat milk/dairy consumption, and heart disease risk, nor death from all causes. Because saturated fat is the main dietary source in full-fat dairy, the suggestion was that saturated fat was at least “neutral” in the connection to heart disease risk.
Decades of research continues to document the strong link between dietary saturated fat and heart disease risk. While genetics also plays a strong role (that risk cannot be modified), changes in diet have been clearly shown to positively impact heart health. National guidelines have never advocated eliminating saturated fat from the diet — but rather, limiting it.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (a joint publication of the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture) suggests a saturated fat intake of less than 10 percent of calories. So if you consume 2,000 calories, no more than 200 calories should be from saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends even less, about half that amount. Translated into real food, that’s about one to two moderate servings a day of a saturated fat-rich food daily. You can also think about your total fat intake, allowing no more than one-third of it to be saturated fat.
While the majority of saturated fats comes from animal sources (meat and full-fat dairy products like whole milk, ice cream, butter, cream, lard, cheese), some plant-based oils (like palm and coconut oil) are also rich sources. Many store-bought baked goods can contain saturated fat.
How to cut down:
Based on current recommendations from national guidelines, aim to limit your saturated fat intake using these easy strategies:
• choose vegetable oils instead of solid fats
• swap fatty cuts of meat with leaner cuts (think round, sirloin) or try poultry or fish; cut off excess fat
• remove skin from poultry
• try whole milk instead of cream for your coffee
• focus primarily on reduced-fat or non-fat dairy products
• limit cheese consumption to one serving daily (about four small dice)
Make these swaps:
Here’s a list of the saturated fat content in popular foods with some suggested swaps, from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
1 ounce of cheddar cheese = 6 grams of saturated fat
1 ounce of low-fat cheddar cheese = 1.2 grams of saturated fat
3 ounces of cooked regular ground beef = 7.2 grams of saturated fat
3 ounces of cooked extra lean ground beef = 5.3 grams of saturated fat
1 cup of whole milk = 5.1 grams of saturated fat
1 cup of low-fat (1%) milk = 1.6 grams of saturated fat
1 medium croissant = 6.6 grams of saturated fat
1 medium bagel = 0.1 grams of saturated fat
½ cup of regular ice cream = 4.5 grams of saturated fat
½ cup of frozen yogurt = 2.5 grams of saturated fat
1 teaspoon of butter = 2.4 grams of saturated fat
1 teaspoon of soft margarine = 0.7 grams of saturated fat
The bottom line:
When it comes to healthy eating, moderation is key — and that’s the challenge. Limiting saturated fat intake doesn’t mean saying goodbye to cheesecake, a juicy steak or an ice cream sundae. But view these as occasional indulgences if you choose. It does mean paying attention to the overall daily quality of your diet — including plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and plant-based fats.
Always check with your doctor or registered dietitian for eating advice if you have a chronic health condition or are taking prescription medications. Advice for “populations” does not always apply to the individual.
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Madelyn Fernstrom is the NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.