Healthy Eating

Big Fat Surprise

Experts agree that a little saturated fat can be good for you. Here’s how to spend your fat budget wisely.

Big Fat Surprise
Pin it Carin Krasner

We’ve all heard that saturated fat is bad for us, and most of us do our best to avoid it. But cutting it out of your diet completely is both unnecessary, and likely to backfire. As a registered dietitian, I’ve worked with clients who have stopped eating fat in an effort to lose weight, only to find themselves unsatisfied with their fat-free food choices (and unable to drop the extra pounds). Instead of replacing whole, healthy foods with fat-free substitutes, I tell my clients to eat food as close as possible to its natural state—and to embrace the saturated fat that comes along with it. In fact, top experts agree it’s OK—and even beneficial—to include this type of fat in moderation.

“Some high-quality saturated fat is not only acceptable but healthy in the diet,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson. And research backs this up: A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that trans-palmitoleic acid, which is found in dairy fat, may substantially reduce the risk of type II diabetes. A second study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating low-fat dairy foods contributed to infertility, while consumption of full-fat dairy foods may actually increase your odds of getting pregnant.

But, before you add that doubledip cone to your daily diet, keep in mind that frugality counts. “Think of it as having a saturated fat budget,” says Weil. “You have a set amount of calories from saturated fat and you can decide how you want to spend it.”

The science of fat
Fats are broken into two categories— saturated (fats that are solid at room temperature) and unsaturated (fats that are liquid at room temperature). According to Weil, about 600 calories each day, or roughly 30 percent of a daily 2,000-calorie diet, can come from fat and a quarter of that can be saturated fat. More simply, if you’re consuming 2,000 calories a day, your daily saturated fat budget is about 17 grams or 150 calories, he says. In a perfect world, foods would be divided into those that only have saturated fats and those that only have unsaturated fats. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. “All fats, no exceptions, are a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., author of What To Eat (North Point Press). “If you eat any fat at all, you’re getting saturated fat.” So if you choose to eat avocado, whose fat content is revered for its health benefits, about 10 percent of its fat content is saturated.

(Expert) spending habits
How can you make the most of your saturated fat budget? I asked four of my fellow health and wellness experts (who also happen to be foodies) to reveal the details of their daily dietary indulgences. I combined their expense reports— along with my own—to come up with five simple saturated fat rules we can all follow.

1 ANDREW WEIL, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson.

Expense report: “I love cheese, so I choose about 2 ounces of high-quality raw cheese, such as Parmesan, Emmental and Gruyere, made from animals consuming grasses on mountaintops,” says Weil, who adds that he pairs his fromage with fiber-rich, whole-grain tortillas, whole-grain pasta and vegetables, or nibbles it plain. “The rest of my diet centers around an abundance of fresh food, olive oil and meals cooked from scratch,” he says.

Takeaway tip: Splurge on your favorites. If you’re really looking forward to eating a beloved treat such as cheese (or chocolate or ice cream), you’re likely to be satisfied with less. That means you you don’t just get to enjoy one indulgence, but a whole variety of healthy saturated fats (think avocado, nuts or seeds).

2 DENISE MARI, founder and executive director of Organic Avenue, a New York-based takeout and delivery service of raw, vegan and organic foods and juices.

Expense report: “As a vegan, the conversation about fat changes. In a raw, plant-based form, fat is an alkaline food loaded with energy. I go out of my way to eat avocado every day and coconut is another favorite. I don’t count calories or use a scale (for me or my food). If it’s raw, whole food and plant-based, it’s good.”

Takeaway tip: Make plant fats a priority. Such sources provide us with nature’s intended balance of fatty acids, including saturated fat, as well as phytonutrients (those nutrients found only in plants) such as carotenoids and polyphenols.