In 1961 when the American Heart Association issued the recommendation to reduce our intake of saturated fats to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, few could have predicted that advice would be the mainstay of dietary advice nearly 60 years later. The concern, then and now, is that saturated fat intake causes the liver to produce artery clogging cholesterol. Arteries lined with cholesterol plaque are narrower and more rigid, causing hardening of the arteries. This reduces blood flow to vital organs, and increases blood pressure. If a piece of brittle plaque breaks off, the blood clots around it, and that circulating blood clot can lodge in the heart, lung, or brain, causing major mischief like heart attack or stroke.
It is not difficult to visually identify saturated fat, because it is solid at room temperature. Therefore, coconut or palm oil, a stick of butter, and the fat around raw red meats are all rich sources of saturated fat. Liquid fats at room temperature tend to be polyunsaturated and may lower cholesterol levels, according to some scientists. Oils in this category would be soybean, corn, safflower, and sunflower. Oils that solidify in the refrigerator are usually monounsaturated fats, like canola and olive oil. These are said to be more neutral, but may also be associated with reduced inflammation, a beneficial attribute for a preventive lifestyle. Some epidemiologists argue that it is the consumption of olive oil, generous amounts of vegetables and fruits, with small amounts of animal protein that all contribute to the proven benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
So, what do we dark chocolate lovers do with this information, given that chocolate is high in fat, and is solid at room temperature? Luckily, there are different types of saturated fatty acids. The stearic acid found in dark chocolate, is considered neutral, and has little to no effect on the risky LDL [low density lipoprotein] cholesterol in our blood.
Bottom line- We Americans need to reduce our intake of all fat, especially saturated fats. In reading nutrition labels for grams of saturated fat per serving, I suggest using 3-4 grams per serving as a general guideline. Today, the American Heart Association urges we keep our consumption of saturated fats to no more than 5-6% of our caloric intake. Based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories, that would mean a limit of 11-13 grams of saturated fat. [Many of us need to eat far fewer than 2,000 calories daily in order to maintain a healthy weight, which would mean eating even fewer grams of saturated fat per day.] To put this in perspective…one ounce of Swiss cheese has about 5 grams of saturated fat. A 3 ounce serving of steak can have 3-5 grams of saturated fat. These numbers mount as we eat our way through the day. Keep these guidelines in mind, and see how many grams of fat and saturated fat you can shave from your diet. This practice can reduce your risks of a miserable quality of life, or a shortened life.