When it comes to dietary fat, things can get confusing. And it’s not just a challenge for the general public. Sometimes it seems like food manufacturers, government agencies, and doctors don’t quite get it either.
First, let’s clear one thing up: dietary fat doesn’t make you fat. Peanut butter doesn’t just deposit on your hips or belly once it’s swallowed. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at how dietary fat has been—and remains to be—so confusing.
The big challenge with dietary fat is understanding that there are different kinds. Some are good for you, while others are not. Unfortunately, for a very long time, all forms of dietary fat were painted with the same stroke.
Decades ago, dietary recommendations indicated that fat should be no more than 30% of daily calories. Then it went to range from 20–35%. This is because there was the idea that less fat would have a positive influence on cholesterol and reduce the risk for a heart attack.
Food manufacturers started replacing fats in foods with refined carbohydrates and sugars. But as it turned out, that made no difference in heart disease risk. Neither did lowering the intake of saturated fats, like those found in animal products and some plants. But increasing unsaturated fat intake did.
Unsaturated fats are “healthy” fats found in nuts, fatty fish, and olive oil. These healthy fats can lower the risk of heart disease, even if they make up more than 35 percent of total daily calories. There is also a growing body of research indicating that saturated fats, when occurring naturally, have a neutral effect on cholesterol and heart health. This means they do not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, but do not lower it either.
Official recommendations still set the upper limit for saturated fats at 10% of total calories. And although it is unclear if going higher will have an adverse effect on health, it’s probably a good number to stick to most of the time. Examples of saturated fats include butter, cream, lard, animal fat, coconut oil, and palm oil.
All fats are not created equal. Cutting fat out of your diet, or even limiting it, might not be the best strategy. Instead, pay attention to how much you’re eating and what types to optimize heart health.