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Don’t Fall Prey To Cutting Fat the Wrong Way

Yvonne Duivenvoorden/Getty Images
Yvonne Duivenvoorden/Getty Images,

by Sarah Mahoney

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Plenty of Americans have gotten the message that saturated fats, the kind found in animal products like cheese, butter and red meat, are linked to greater risks of heart disease. But a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that when people cut saturated-fat calories from their diet, they were likely to replace it with poor-quality carbs like potatoes and white bread. As a result, their hearts were no healthier than if they had stayed on the bacon wagon. Here's how to cut fat the right way.

The best approach to combat heart disease is replacing more saturated fats with heart-healthy fat alternatives, like canola oil and avocados, as well as higher-value carbohydrates, such as whole grains. The new findings suggest cardiologists need to give patients more detailed dietary suggestions than simply saying “Lay off the animal fats.”

“When people removed saturated fats from their diet, they tended to replace those fats with refined starches and sugars, rather than with healthier fats or whole-grain carbohydrates,” says researcher Adela Hruby, Ph.D., MPH, who works in the nutrition department of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Even though the recommendations to lower saturated fat intake back then did not simultaneously recommend to load up on refined carbohydrates, that's what people appeared to do. Based on our results, this swap—saturated fat for refined carbs—didn’t reduce heart disease risk.”

When people cut saturated-fat calories, they were likely to replace it with poor-quality carbs like potatoes and white bread.

Adela Hruby, Ph.D., MPH, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The best news, she says, is that effective swaps are relatively easy: “For every type of refined grain product, like white bread or pasta, there are the same products in whole grain. So, if I like to eat an English muffin in the morning, I choose the whole-grain version at my local grocery store. Or if I like to prepare pasta as part of my dinner, then I'll go with a whole-grain pasta. We happen to be big fans of extra-virgin olive oil.” She says she’s even taken a cue from Spanish colleagues who use extra-virgin olive oil just like butter. “I've started it instead of butter on my English muffin. It's got an incredible flavor—and really does transport me to the Mediterranean for a few minutes every morning!”

Switching poultry for red meat also lowers saturated fat intake: Think ground-chicken chili instead of beef, or sliced turkey sandwiches instead of salami.

But there’s no reason to swear off steak, butter and brie entirely. “We don't generally advocate for the removal of any food group from the diet unless dictated by medical needs,” she says. Just try and keep saturated fat to less than 10% of your daily calories. So for someone eating about 2,000 calories a day, that means 200 calories or less, or 22 grams of saturated fat. (Each gram of fat has about 9 calories.)

Since a small pat of butter contains about 2.5 grams of saturated fat, a 3-ounce (palm-size) porterhouse steak contains about 3.7 grams of saturated fat, and 2 one-ounce slices of cheddar cheese contain about 11 grams of saturated fat, there’s clearly room to have some of these foods each day.

“Portion size and mindfulness are important when monitoring your intake,” Hruby says. The typical restaurant porterhouse steak has a whopping 20 grams of saturated fat “and that’s the cooked meat alone, never mind all the things it usually comes with.”