Like many things in nutrition, it’s difficult to make blanket assumptions with certain types of food, because there are tons of different factors that combine to make someone more or less at risk of a certain disease—not just one particular nutrient. For instance, Dr. Goss says the overall context of your diet likely plays a role in the effects of saturated fats on your health. If you tend to eat a lot of less nutritious high-carb foods (say, ones that contain added sugars, not ones like whole grains, fruits, or vegetables) with your saturated fat, for example, your body may be more likely to store this fat in the liver, contributing to fatty liver disease, Dr. Goss says.
It’s also likely that there is more to tease out regarding the relationship between saturated fat and disease. One relatively new way of thinking? All sources of saturated fat may not affect your body in the same way. For instance, whole-fat dairy and unprocessed meats, for example, may not be linked with heart disease, and coconut oil might not raise LDL cholesterol as much as animal fats do. Until we have more conclusive research, though, it makes sense to stick with the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines or the AHA.
And continue to look at the bigger picture: Experts agree that establishing a healthy overall dietary pattern is more important than focusing only on reducing saturated fats. Some of the foods we eat that are high in saturated fat, like pastries and candy, are also rich in simple sugars or other components that can negatively affect health when consumed in excess. Remember, though, overall pattern is key, so you don’t have to overstress about every bit of saturated fat you take in, even if you are trying to stick to the guidelines—it’s not about one meal or one day of eating.
What are trans fats, and should you limit them?
If there’s any fat that deserves its bad rep, it’s probably trans fat, named for trans bonds in its molecular structure. Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in some foods, like meat and dairy, because animals like cows and goats can produce these fats in their guts. (Your gut doesn’t make them, however.) Trans fats also used to be industrially produced and prevalent in snack foods you’d find at the store, such as cakes, pies, and cookies made with shortening, microwave popcorn, and refrigerated dough, like canned biscuits, as SELF reported previously.
More than a century ago, food manufacturers began making artificial trans fats by hydrogenating polyunsaturated vegetable oils so they stayed solid at room temperature. That’s the “partially hydrogenated oil” that you may have heard about. This process helps extend the shelf life of foods and give them a smooth texture. However, it comes with some serious drawbacks.
“They do seem, in population studies, to do the worst possible thing you’d want—they raise LDL, and they lower HDL,” says Dr. German. According to the AHA, eating trans fats can raise your risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
The good news is that the FDA has phased out industrially produced trans fats over the past few years. After 2018, most manufacturers were no longer able to add trans fats to foods, though some received limited, petitioned approval to use them until June of 2019. (They also had until January 2021 for the foods to work their way through distribution.) Research suggests that the naturally occurring trans fat might not be as harmful as the industrially produced ones, although more studies are needed. For now, stick with the Dietary Guidelines, which recommend reducing all trans fat as much as possible without compromising the overall quality of your diet.
While the evidence is pretty solid on the need to limit these non-natural sources of trans fat, there’s still a lot we need to learn about the other types of fat. Until that research is done—and we desperately need more research in diverse populations on a variety of health outcomes, says Dr. German—it’s best to consider your fat intake as one single component of your diet, not the defining factor of it. Consider how everything you eat fits together, says Dr. Goss. “The overall context of your diet does matter, and dietary fat can fit into a lot of healthy dietary patterns,” she says.