Not exactly. Most dietitians agree it’s a matter of context. The latest research has found that “it’s not so much saturated fat by itself, but in concert with high-glycemic carbs—refined sugars—that’s the problem,” says Isabel Smith, RD.
A 2015 study concluded that when people ate unsaturated fat—the kind found in olive oil, nuts, and seeds—in place of saturated fat, it did lower their risk of heart disease. But when people cut all fats from their diet, they ate more refined carbs—which canceled any benefits. And anotherstudy published earlier this year found that when saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, specifically added sugars, it can actually negatively impact your levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), good cholesterol (HDL), and triglycerides, potentially upping your risk of cardiovascular disease. What’s worse, added sugars also increase your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
Experts agree that the science is still evolving, which is why US dietary guidelines still recommend limiting saturated fat to 7 grams a day (or 140 total calories in a 2,000-calorie diet). “Just because saturated fat is safer than we thought doesn’t mean we should be eating it three times a day,” Smith says.
“If saturated fat shows up in your diet from time to time, you don’t have to be crazy about it,” agrees Lisa Moskovitz, RD. She says the people who need to be most careful are those with high cholesterol, heart conditions, or a history of heart disease in their families.
But what does that mean for the rest of us? Here’s what you need to keep in mind.
Consider the source. Instead of fretting over every last gram of saturated fat, focus on the big picture. All of the latest research seems to suggest that the problem isn’t so much the fat itself—it’s the source. “Most people are getting saturated fat from cheese, pizza, and desserts,” says Dana James, RD. “Pizza should be a treat, not something you’re having every day for lunch.” So try to cook at home and load up on whole, fresh foods instead of packaged, processed ones as much as possible—with only the occasional slab of butter or hunk of steak.
Opt for grass-fed beef. It’s typically leaner than conventional beef, says Moskovitz. And remember, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed, it just mean it’s free of added hormones and pesticides.
Pick plant-based fats. That means if you have a choice between cooking with olive oil or butter, choose the oil. And avocados, nuts, and seeds contain anti-inflammatory unsaturated fat that everyone agrees is good for your brain, heart, and cholesterol levels, say experts.
Enjoy coconut oil—in moderation. Speaking of plant oils, coconut oil is an exception since it contains mostly saturated fat. Because it’s plant-based, “theoretically it should be better,” says Smith—but the science is mixed. But unlike other foods high in saturated fat, it doesn’t contain cholesterol. Plus “one teaspoon a day might help with thyroidfunction, it may help with fat burning, and it might be anti-inflammatory,” says Smith, although studies have yet to prove these benefits definitively. Smith recommends cold-pressed coconut oil over the refined stuff.
Bottom line: In the end, it comes down to making smart choices—and finding out what your doctor or dietitian recommends for you before making any changes to your diet.