Saturated fat, by definition, is a fat that is solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are often found in foods of animal origin, as well as in tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil. And according to the American Heart Association, approach foods high in saturated fat with caution. A diet high in saturated fat can raise LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
“If your diet is higher in fat overall, it will be higher in calories because fat is a more calorically dense nutrient,” he adds. Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LDpediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“The gut also has a lot of disruption when it’s loaded with saturated fat and doesn’t have fiber to clean it,” he says. Kara Burnstine, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES, a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Educator at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa.
Foods rich in saturated fat
Check out this list of foods that are typically high in saturated fat. If you eat a lot of these foods on a regular basis, you may be eating more saturated fat than you realize, and you may want to consider cutting back.
Let’s just acknowledge at the outset that butter, which is derived from animal fat, is high in both saturated fat and calories. But don’t ditch butter and automatically reach for margarine, because margarine often contains trans fats, which aren’t good for you either. As a general rule, it’s better to go for olive oil, which is low in saturated fat but high in monounsaturated fat, or perhaps a spread that is low in saturated fat and contains no trans fat.
Related: The Skinny on Fat: What are the four best fats to eat?
Ah, those processed and cured meats. They are so delicious, but they also tend to be high in saturated fat, making them a “sometimes” or “occasional” food for most of us. In addition to sausages, foods such as hot dogs and bacon also fall into this category.
Red meat can also be high in saturated fat, so be sure to read labels and watch the fat content. Or look for leaner cuts. According to the USDA, a lean cut of beef is a 3.5-ounce serving that contains less than 10 grams of total fat and less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat. An extra-lean serving would contain less than 5 grams of total fat and less than 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Also, if you’re really craving a burger, you might want to go for thinner versions like a bison burger, suggests Burnstine.
Coconut oil definitely had a moment in the not-too-distant past, in part because many people embraced diets like the keto and paleo diets. But you should approach this product with caution. Health experts have long known that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. It’s 100 percent fat, and 80 to 90 percent is saturated fat, according to Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health. Many prepackaged foods also contain coconut oil, so even if you don’t buy coconut oil yourself, it may still be lurking in some of the foods you love.
Muffins, cakes, and other prepackaged baked goods that you can buy at the grocery store are also often high in fat. In order to be stable, they undergo a process called hydrogenation. Unfortunately, this creates trans fats, which research suggests are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, among other ailments.
Related: Why coconut oil is not good for your heart
You probably wouldn’t stop eating foods like chicken, onions, mushrooms, or zucchini because they’re healthy. right? Unfortunately, if you bread them a lot and then fry them, you’re gaining a lot of extra fat and calories in the process. The process of frying anything is the big problem, according to Burnstine. “It’s the oil,” he explains. “They use a vegetable oil and they use a lot of it, and the oil has about 4,000 calories per pound.”
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It’s very convenient to grab a bag of cookies for a snack, but you may pay the price later if it becomes a habit. The saturated fat content may be higher than you would expect.
Health experts often recommend low-fat dairy products such as milk and yogurt as part of a healthy diet. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends two to three servings of low-fat dairy per day for most adults. But look at the label on that ice cream carton to measure the fat content. It may not, or probably won’t, in fact qualify as “low fat”. If you’re concerned, you can eat a smaller portion or eat it less often, or opt for a reduced-fat version.
Like snack crackers, potato chips tend to be higher in saturated fat. Fortunately, if you’re a fan of French fries, you have plenty of healthier options, like baked fries that will still give you the satisfaction of flavor and crunch without posing as much risk to your cardiovascular system.
If you can resist the temptation to order hot, salty fries to go with your burger, you have more willpower than most people. But your arteries will thank you, as French fries can be high in saturated fat if fried in oil.
Pizza doesn’t have to be high in saturated fat, but it often is. Because? Because we load it with lots of cheese, which is high in saturated fat. And to make matters worse, we often add a lot of cold meats, like pepper and sausage. Reduce the amount of cheese or swap out some of the full-fat cheese for low-fat cheese to make it a healthier option. Bonus: pile on some veggies for a nutritional boost.
Related: From avocado and olive oil to coconut and sesame oil, here are the best and worst cooking oils for your heart
A word of caution
You can always switch from a full-fat product to a low-fat or fat-free version. Think: yogurt and cheese. But fat is what makes many foods taste good, Reed points out. “So if we eat something that doesn’t fill us up, it doesn’t leave us satisfied,” he says. “And fat is a big part of why we feel full after a meal and feel satisfied.”
And if you don’t feel satisfied, you may be tempted to keep eating, which may not be so healthy for you.
You don’t necessarily have to give up saturated fat. However, you should consider your overall nutritional needs. For example, a plate of roasted vegetables with some melted butter on top will provide you with far more benefits than several servings of crackers for a snack.
“Most of the time, we just have to choose foods that provide us with better nutrition,” says Reed.
Then: Trying to avoid trans fats? Here are the foods to watch out for and the best dietitian-approved swaps
- American Heart Association. Dairy products: milk, yogurt and cheese
- American Heart Association. saturated fat
- Kara Burnstine, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES, registered dietitian and nutrition educator at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa.
- Harvard Public Health. Is butter really back?
- Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. coconut oil
- Journal of nutrition. Trans fatty acid consumption is related to plasma biomarkers of inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.
- Mayo Clinic. Beef Cuts: A Guide to the Leanest Selections.
- Mayo Clinic. Which spread is better for my heart: butter or margarine?
- Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, pediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.