Q: Is there such a thing as eating too little saturated fat?
A: Definitely—but it isn’t just about saturated fat, as your body can make saturated fat. Part of the problem lies in what happens with the rest of your diet when you go nuclear with your saturated fat restriction.
Very Low Sat Fat Diets
Dietary recommendations that promote the reduction of saturated fat have been touted for several decades in the name of heart health. Initially recommendations said to cut saturated fat down to 10 percent of total calories, and in more recent years the new target (namely as part of the DASH diet) has been 7 percent of calories.
This is not the lowest saturated fat diet you will find, however. The Ornish diet advises less than 10 percent of total calories from any kind of fat, with very little of that coming from saturated fat. From a total fat standpoint, this would mean you could have about 1 tablespoon of oil all day—i.e. not a lot—and that’s only if you avoid any other appreciable sources of fat. This diet, in conjunction with exercise and stress-relief techniques, was initially found to reverse atherosclerosis after a year of treatment. More recent studies have also found that a very low-fat approach can be an efficacious approach for improving health.
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But as shown in the 2007 A to Z Study, which pitted the Ornish, Zone, and Atkins diets against each other, it is not the only way—and probably not the best way for most people. Because of its stringent fat limitation, the Ornish diet is very hard to follow, and your ability to adhere to a plan is one of the most important factors when choosing a diet.
Saturated Fat Isn’t the Whole Story
Specifically with respects to cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular disease risk factors, more recent research suggests that the “reduce saturated fat by any means necessary” advice has been short-sighted, especially due to the fashion in which many people choose to reduce and replace saturated fat in their diets: with carbohydrates, usually simple ones. Increasing the total amount of carbs—especially the refined kind—at the expense of reducing saturated fat will probably doing you more harm than the saturated fat was causing.
It is also important to realize your carbohydrate intake actually impacts what your body does with saturated fat. When you increase saturated fat intake, your LDL cholesterol goes up, and, logically, when you lower your intake, it goes down. But this relationship doesn’t hold true when you eat fewer carbs—if it did, very low carbohydrate-high fat diets would kill people, and they do the complete opposite, they make people really healthy.
The exact carb intake at which you can eat saturated fat without increasing LDL cholesterol is unknown, but our best guess at the moment based on current research is that is happens at a carbohydrate intake around 30 percent of total calories. For a reference point, this is about 25 percent less carbohydrates than normally seen with a Zone diet.
How Much Saturated Fat Should You Eat?
Don’t concern yourself with eating too little saturated fat, but instead focus on eating a variety of fats. Sat fat is an important component for hormone production, cellular membrane function, and cell signaling, so you want to eat it. If you eat a moderate-fat diet (30 percent calories from fat), then it is reasonable to get one-third of your fat from each kind: monounsaturated (olive oil, macadamia nuts, avocados, lean beef), polyunsaturated (walnuts, canola oil, fatty fish, flaxseeds), and saturated (cheese, animal fat, butter, coconut oil). This would put your saturated fat intake at 10 percent of your total intake, which isn’t high or too low, and it allows you to eat a variety of foods that innately contain saturated fat.