WITHOUT GIVING it much thought, do you trim the fat off steak, drink skimmed milk and opt for low-fat spreads? It’s probably because for years you were told the saturated fat in these foods isn’t good for you, that it raises your cholesterol levels, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, and makes you overweight. But recent science suggests a low-fat lifestyle could actually harm your health and that saturated fats shouldn’t be completely shunned. Contrary to what you may have thought, a diet that’s very low in saturated fats has now been found to possibly increase your risk of premature death by 13 per cent, while a relatively high intake could actually lower your chances of an early death by 23 per cent and reduce your risk of suffering a stroke, according to a new study from McMasters University in Canada. The most likely reason for these fi ndings, according to the researchers, is that when you cut back on fat, you turn to carbohydrates to fi ll you up – which often equals bread, rice, pasta and sugary foods. This could mean missing out on vital nutrients and increasing your risk of other health problems such as insulin resistance, which is the precursor to type 2 diabetes.
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SAT FAT FACTS
As a macronutrient, fat is vital for your health. It gives you energy, keeps your brain fi ring and helps you absorb other nutrients such as lycopene, beta-carotene and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which are important for bone strength, blood clotting and fi ghting off free radicals. ‘Saturated fat has a specifi c role to play,’ says registered nutritionist Claire Baseley (clairebaseley.co.uk). ‘It’s used to manufacture hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone, which are made from the cholesterol created when we eat it. This combo also provides part of the structure of all the cells in your body.’ But while the latest research suggests eating plenty of saturated fat could help you to live longer, earlier research has disagreed. ‘Previous trials have shown that high intakes of saturated fat lead to high LDL cholesterol levels, which in turn could lead to a greater risk of heart attack and stoke,’ says Naveed Sattar, professor of cardiovascular and medical sciences at Glasgow University. ‘We also know that if you have high cholesterol, reducing your saturated fat intake could help to lower it and reduce your chances of a heart attack.’
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
The recent Canadian study suggests that for optimum health, your total dietary intake of fats should make up 35 per cent of your calories. ‘This is in line with current UK guidelines for a healthy diet,’ says Claire. For saturated fat, it gets a little more complicated. ‘The study showed that the healthiest people ate between 9-13 per cent of their calories from saturated fat. Current recommendations are set at 10 per cent of calories from saturated fat. So eating a little bit more than the guidelines suggest might not be harmful to your health if your diet is otherwise healthy and balanced.’ If you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, 10 per cent of your calories would equate to 20g of saturated fat and would give your body all it needs to produce hormones and keep your cells healthy. Check out food labels when you’re shopping – anything with more than 5g saturated fat per 100g, or more than 6g saturated fat per portion, is considered to be high in saturated fat. ‘It’s best to eat less of these foods, but you don’t need to avoid them completely,’ says Claire.
When people experience dietary-related health issues, a lot of it can be boiled down to problematic food combinations. For example products containing both butter and sugar aren’t very nutritious, but are also pretty addictive, so you’re more likely to eat too much of them. ‘If the foods contain saturated fat and sugar, for example ice cream, cakes, desserts and chocolate, it’s best not to eat them often,’ says Claire. ‘A diet that’s high in saturated fat and sugar together is likely to be worse than just eating saturated fat. This is because sugar, when consumed to excess, contributes to weight gain with all its associated risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.’ Instead, opt for full-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and (sugar-free)yogurt within your sat fat quota, which can also have additional health benefi ts. More research is needed to explain exactly why the saturated fat in dairy seems to be better for heart health, but scientists suggest that milk and other dairy products are a good source of calcium and potassium, which are two minerals important for blood pressure control. Plus, they contain protein, which helps you feel satisfi ed and means you’re less likely to overeat. Other sources of animal protein are fine to enjoy within that 10 per cent quota – as long as you go for quality. ‘A couple of portions of red meat per week is ok, especially if it’s from grass-fed animals, which contain a higher proportion of healt omega-3 fats too,’ says Claire. ‘But it’s best to eat a variety of protein sources, including plant-based ones such as pulses, as well as fi sh, eggs and poultry.’
BE SAVVY WITH SWAPS
If you have high cholesterol, or a strong family history of heart problems, it might be worth lowering your saturated fat intake a bit, but be mindful of what you swap it with. ‘Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fat from olive oil, avocado and nuts or seeds is good and seems to reduce cardiovascular risk,’ says Claire. ‘But, replacing the majority with refined carbs such as biscuits, white bread and pasta does not.’ Eating refi ned carbs that are high in sugar and low in fi bre is associated with lower levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and higher levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which could lead to increased heart disease risk. Wholegrain carbs, on the other hand, such as oats and brown rice, could help reduce cholesterol levels. Overall, these new studies are reassuring that if you’re otherwise healthy, and eat a balanced diet, then a nice steak, a nibble of cheese and perhaps the occasional ice cream, is fine.
DID YOU KNOW… O There are more than a dozen types of saturated fatty acids? The ones we eat most are stearic acid found in animal fats, palmitic acid from palm oil, red meat and dairy products, and lauric acid, which is found in coconut and palm kernel oils. O All fats contain a combination of fatty acids – no fat is pure saturated fat. Animal fats, for example, contain significant amounts of essential omega-3 and 6 fats, especially if they come from grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed animals. O Fats that are mostly saturated, such as butter and coconut oil, are solid at room temperature, while fats that are mostly unsaturated, such as olive oil, are liquid at room temperature.
THE COCONUT OIL DEBATE Coconut oil contains 87g of sat fats per 100g – but some people consider it healthy. ‘Some medium-chain saturated fats, such as those in coconut oil, may not negatively impact cardiovascular health like the longer-chain versions, such as palmitic acid found in palm oil,’ says Claire. ‘However, the main sat fat in coconut oil, lauric acid, behaves more like a long chain saturated fat and therefore isn’t overly heart healthy.’ Try cooking with grapeseed oil instead – it contains more monounsaturated fats, which are less liable to heat damage.
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