The Primary Sources of Saturated Fat

Cutting back may help improve your overall health

foods high in saturated fats, meat and cheese
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Saturated fat has long had a bad reputation as a key factor in developing heart disease, but research is mixed. Although some claim that saturated fat isn't as bad as it was once thought, the American Heart Association recommends limiting primary saturated fat sources to just 5 to 6 percent of calories. On a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that's 120 calories, or 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

A diet high in saturated fat might increase total cholesterol, as well as LDL, or "bad," cholesterol. This can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A 2014 report from Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that globally, 9.4 percent of calories consumed come from saturated fat. If you're concerned about saturated fat consumption, cutting back in favor of eating more unsaturated might improve your overall health.

Foods High in Saturated Fat

The primary sources of saturated fat are animal products, but they are also in some plant-based foods. Generally speaking, saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think of butter) versus unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature (such as olive oil).

  • Animal-based saturated fats: Red meat (beef and pork), whole-and reduced-fat dairy products including cheese, sour cream, ice cream, and butter
  • Plant-based saturated fats: Coconut oil, coconut milk, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil.

While you probably don’t go to the store and buy these items individually—with the exception of coconut milk—most plant-based saturated fats crop up in commercially prepared products. For example, cocoa butter is in many chocolate brands, and coconut and palm oils are an ingredient in several food items, from nondairy whipped toppings and coffee creamers to cookies and cakes. Generally speaking, you should avoid store-bought baked goods, which likely contain saturated fats.

Reducing Saturated Fat Intake

Although you don't need to cut out saturated fat entirely, reducing your intake and eating more unsaturated fats can be a healthy diet strategy.

  • Substitute low-fat or fat-free versions of milk and dairy products for their full-fat counterparts. If you use creamer or whole milk in your coffee, switch to skim milk or take your coffee black.
  • Eat red meat only occasionally, and when you do, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions. Lean cuts of beef include sirloin, top round, eye of round, and bottom round steak. Pork tenderloin is also a lean choice.
  • Always remove the skin from poultry after cooking, which contains the most saturated fat in the cut.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week, as it's a rich source of unsaturated fats. Salmon is particularly full of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Consider going meatless at least once a week to increase consumption of vegetables and other plant-based foods.
  • Use liquid vegetable oils, such as canola or olive oil, over solid fats such as butter for cooking and as condiments.
  • Flavor foods with herbs and spices instead of saturated fat-laden toppings and sauces.
  • Increase intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, particularly unsaturated fat-rich foods such as almonds, walnuts, avocado, peanut butter, and seeds like flax and chia.