The World Health Organization, WHO (not to be confused with The WHO, the English rock band formed in 1964) has released a call for public comments on the draft “Guidelines: Saturated fatty acid and trans-fatty intake for adults and children.”  (1)

Translation to non-nutrition-speak: “These are guidelines on how much saturated and trans fat we’ve determined is healthiest for you to eat on a daily basis.” 

Why the new guidelines and why should you care?

Let’s chew the fat and get right to the details.

WHO Backgrounder

The WHO works to build a healthier future for people all over the world by striving to combat communicable diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from one person to another) like influenza, and noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

According to WHO, noncommunicable diseases (NCD) are the leading causes of death, and were responsible for ~39.5 million of the world’s 54.7 million deaths in 2016. Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) were the leading cause of NCD mortality, with unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, tobacco use and and harmful use of alcohol leading the way as major (and alterable) causes of CVDs. (2)

This is where the saturated fats and trans-fats come in; eating too much of both are connected to increased risk of CVDs. Plus, there’s a link between heart disease and breast cancer; I wrote about it here. 

It’s just as important to pay attention to the recommendations for feeding your heart as it is to feeding your breasts – one indirectly helps the other.

Given that, it makes sense to develop guidelines outlining how much saturated fat is too much, and perhaps even more importantly, what they are and where they’re found. How can you decrease your intake if you don’t even know when you eat them!

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are found in animal and plant foods, and are responsible for raising both your cholesterol and LDL levels. Thanks to genetics, some people naturally have higher cholesterol levels, but when it comes to the DIETARY side of things, eating too much saturated fat adds to the problem.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. You know how you can leave a stick of butter out on the counter and IT DOESN’T MELT? That’s because butter is an example of a food high in saturated fat. 51% of of the fat in butter, or 7 grams per tablespoon, is saturated fat. (3)

Other animal food examples of saturated fats solid at room temperature are lard (pork fat), chicken fat, and tallow or suet (beef fat).

Here’s a list of animal foods that contain saturated fat:
  • Butter
  • Meat
  • Sausage, hot dogs, bacon, ribs
  • Full-fat dairy
    • Milk
    • Cheese
    • Ice cream
    • Cream
    • Sour cream
  • Egg yolks
  • Some oily fish
Here’s a list of plant foods that contain saturated fat:
  • Chocolate
  • Cocoa butter
  • Nuts
  • Coconut and coconut oil
  • Palm and palm kernel oils

Now, before you freak out and get all “Hold on a second, I thought nuts were GOOD for me and that coconut oil was the holy grail of health foods!”, let me explain a couple of things.

Not all saturated fats are created equal (I know it seems confusing, but stick with me.)

Lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids are all saturated fats. Foods that contain saturated fats have varying proportions of each of these different saturated fats, and each of these different saturated fats has a different effect on cholesterol.

For example, coconut oil is highest in lauric acid, whereas butter is highest in palmitic acid; both of them contain smaller amounts of the other fatty acids. (4)

According to one particular study examining two groups of subjects for the association between heart disease risk and saturated fat intake, the group consuming the highest amount of saturated fat (overall) had an 18% greater risk of heart disease, compared with the group consuming the least. Palmitic and stearic acid showed the highest risk. (5)

So while coconut oil contains the highest amount of a saturated fatty acid that in this particular study didn’t correlate to highest risk, that doesn’t make it a heart healthy food. A separate study showed that the effects of lauric acid on raising LDL (unhealthy cholesterol) were highest of the various saturated fats. (6)

Back to the nuts.

Nuts contain primarily heart healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturated), with saturated fat weighing in at less than 2.0 grams/ounce. The exception is Brazil and macadamia nuts; one ounce of Brazil nuts has 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and one ounce of macadamia nuts has 3.4 grams. (7)

But that DOESN’T mean stay away from them. You can include Brazil and macadamia nuts in your daily diet and still keep your saturated fat intake within the recommended limit, it simply comes down to portion size. If you eat LESS than one ounce, you’re eating less saturated fat.  

And by the way, BRAZIL nuts are a fantastic source of selenium. Although the research is inconclusive (but ongoing) in determining the role of selenium in cancer risk reduction (that’s selenium from FOOD, not SUPPLEMENTS), I pop two of them into my smoothie every morning (they’re full of all sorts of other antioxidants and nutrition); it can’t hurt! (8, 9)

Trans Fats

Trans fats can be industrially produced through the process of hydrogenation (adding hydrogen to oils that are liquid at room temperature, like vegetable and fish oils), but they also occur naturally in meat and dairy products from ruminant animals (e.g. cattle.)

Industrially produced trans fats are found in baked and fried foods like doughnuts, cookies, crackers, pies, pre-packaged snacks and food, and partially hydrogenated cooking oils and fats (like SHORTENING) that are frequently used in restaurants.

When you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on a nutrition label, you’re guaranteed that particular food contains trans fats. Trans fats increase levels of LDL (the BAD) cholesterol, lowers HDL (the GOOD) cholesterol, and promotes inflammation, so the goal is to reduce intake as close to zero as possible. (10)  

How to Eat Less (or NO!) Trans Fats

  • Choose heart healthy oils that are liquid at room temperature (i.e. olive and canola oil.)
  • Limit commercially prepared baked foods, snack foods, and processed foods.
  • Limit fried foods.
  • If you must eat foods with trans fat as an ingredient, make sure “partially hydrogenated oil” appears near the end of the ingredient list (that means there’s less of it used.)

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SOURCES

  1. Call for public comments on the draft WHO Guidelines: Saturated fatty acid and trans-fatty intake for adults and children
  2. WHO: What We Do
  3. This or That? Butter vs Coconut Oil
  4. Saturated fat, regardless of type, linked with increased heart disease risk
  5. Intake of individual saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women: two prospective longitudinal cohort studies.
  6. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials.
  7. USDA Branded Food Products Database
  8. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  9. Selenium for preventing cancer
  10. Shining the Spotlight on Trans Fats