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We've known for some time that saturated fats are one of the key elements in increasing the risk of not just heart disease and stroke, but also promoting some cancers. Unfortunately, people have gotten the idea that all fat is evil, especially saturated fat.
Up until about ten years or so ago folks were simply told to eat a low fat diet and so all fats became "bad." There were studies at the time showing that very low fat diets helped to prevent disease, but over time further research has figured out which fats are a problem and which ones are actually really good for you. At the same time it's also become well known that the balance of fats is what is really important.
The main problem, actually, has been trans fats. This class of fatty acids do occur naturally in small amounts, but most of what is found in foods today has been manufactured. Food producers began using vegetable oils by saturating them in a process called hydrogenation. One byproduct of the saturation was trans fats, which provide a longer shelf life, offer good baking properties and a slick texture.
The problem is that these fats have an even stronger link to heart disease than a natural saturated fat such as that in butter. The good news is that through a combination of government and commercial pressure, most manufacturers are moving away from trans fats pretty quickly. One of the main sources of trans fats in people's diets was margarine, and for the most part trans fats have been eliminated from those products. This is not completely the case with processed baked goods with long shelf lives, like cookies, cakes and pies, however, so check the package carefully (trans fats now have to be reported in the Nutrition Facts section on all such foods).
The take home message today is to avoid trans fats (they truly are "bad"). As far as saturated fats go, they're OK, but limiting your consumption of these is clearly healthier.
So how much saturated fat is OK? The current recommendations are that about 10% of your calories may from saturated fat. That has always seemed a bit vague to me, though. In practical terms, this is about 17 grams of saturated fat in a 1,500 calorie diet. You can achieve this by working at eating leaner meats, less fried foods and getting your fats more from vegetable sources rather than from meat sources.
Here's the low down on which fats are best and which to be careful of when stocking your pantry or fridge.
The leaner the better. For instance, regular ground beef that is 20% fat contains about 9 grams of saturated fat and 284 calories. 95% lean ground beef (5% fat) has only 2.5 grams of saturated fat and a savings of about 130 calories. Choose lean cuts like top round, the leanest ground beef you can find, tenderloin and flank steak.
Look for lower fat cold cuts for day to day use, such as in sandwiches. For cooking I do like to use great quality cured meats like Prosciutto. Such rich, full flavored ingredients go a long way in your recipes in small amounts.
I love butter. Butter is mostly saturated fat, but for many recipes there's simply no substitute. A teaspoon contains about 2.5 grams of saturated fat. So I use butter in sparing amounts to enrich sauces and in recipes like mashed potatoes and baked goods. I purchase the best quality butter I can, because since I use so little, the small amount I do use doesn't end up costing that much.
Low fat dairy means less saturated fat. Whole milk has about 4 1/2 grams of saturated fat in a cup. The same cup of low fat milk (1%) contains only 1.5 grams. This holds true for other dairy products like yogurt, cream cheese and cottage cheese.
I do use some low fat cheeses. Kraft makes a pretty good 2% milk sharp cheddar cheese that melts well and I think that their reduced-fat Monterey Jack is actually better than the full fat versions.
That said, I do use full fat cheeses but, like butter, I use them carefully and I use the best quality cheeses that I can. An ounce of gruyere cheese has about 5 grams of saturated fat, but the flavor is so intense that for almost any recipe an ounce and a half per serving will be more than enough flavor. The same holds true for other favorites, like great quality Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano cheeses. Just a little goes a really long way.
As with any ingredient, it's about using the best quality ingredients you can - the best quality calories even when they do contain saturated fat.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
November 3, 2008