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Making Sense of Saturated Fat

butter

Maybe you’ve seen headlines declaring that the war on saturated fat is over. The media was buzzing about recent research showing that people who eat less saturated fat tend to have the same rates of heart disease as people who eat higher amounts. So, does this mean “bring on the butter?” Not so fast. Even though some researchers now question the link between saturated fat and heart disease, that doesn’t mean saturated fat is completely off the hook.

Most people still need to keep sight of the total saturated fat they eat – while avoiding trans fats entirely (there’s no debate about the danger of these artificial fats). Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

Vary your dairy. You don’t need to automatically default to the fat-free version every time. Maybe you prefer to drink 2% milk, have half-and-half in your coffee, make creamed spinach with heavy cream, and pour fat-free milk on your cereal.  And when it comes to yogurt, perhaps you want a low-fat, fruit-flavored cup for a snack, but prefer to cook with whole-milk yogurt, which stands up better to heating. It’s fine to mix it up.

Avoid sneaky sources. If you’re going to eat food with saturated fat, make sure you’re choosing foods where you can taste the lusciousness, instead of wasting your “quota” on choices where it’s hidden. Much of the saturated fat we eat is buried in muffins, donuts, pastries, cookies, cakes, pies, pizza crusts, and other refined grains. If you’re easing into eating more saturated fat, cut back on the amounts of refined carbs you snack on.

Do not assume you must delete red meat. Aim for two servings of fish a week, one meatless day, and then fill in with the meat of your choice – yes, even red meats. The leanest versions have “loin” in the name, but you can enjoy whatever cut you prefer as long as the portions are in check.  A deck of cards represents a 3-ounce serving, but you can double that at dinner if you skip the meat at lunch. Thinly sliced meats fanned out on the plate or served in a stir-fry help the servings appear larger.

Embrace the butter. Yes, butter does not have to be banned entirely. It’s certainly better than stick margarines, which contain trans fats. Some of the softer tub margarines made with vegetable oils are better than sticks, but in my book, they just can’t match the taste of real butter. You may also want to try some of the butter-olive oil spreads that are now widely available, or use a combination of butter and olive oil when you sauté. A tablespoon or two of butter a day can typically fit in, but use it judiciously. For instance, use butter to flavor vegetables, rather than piling it on hunks of bread.

Say real cheese, please. In my opinion, cheese is a wondrous thing, so I rarely consider reduced-fat or fat-free versions (except part-skim mozzarella and low-fat ricotta). I would much prefer to have a small amount of the real deal, although these days you can find some better-tasting reduced fat cheeses – especially the pre-grated packages that are convenient for cooking. Fat-free cheeses cross the line for me. Guidelines suggest three servings a day of dairy. So for cheese, a serving is 1 ½ ounces of natural cheese, which translates to about four dice-sized cubes.

Balance your fats. While you’re relishing in the idea of eating saturated fats without guilt, just don’t overlook the poly- and monounsaturated fats that are deserving of your attention.  Instead of butter some mornings, spread your toast with almond butter or mashed avocado. Rather than bacon bits in your salad, sprinkle on some olives and chopped pistachios. Dip your baguette into olive oil instead of smearing it with butter. Layer your sandwich with avocado slices instead of brie.

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