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Medically Approved

Do saturated fats cause heart disease?

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The linkOther factorsFoods to limitFoods to tryTreatmentSummary
Saturated fats are likely to raise your cholesterol levels, which can, in turn, lead to heart disease. You may want to limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats.
Medically reviewed by Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Updated on

Fats play an important role in your diet. Eating small quantities of some forms of fat is healthy and helps your body function and remain warm. However, you may consider avoiding or limiting some other types.

There are four main types of fats in our diets:

  • monounsaturated fats
  • polyunsaturated fats
  • trans fats
  • saturated fats

Experts generally consider monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats as healthy fats because they help maintain appropriate levels of cholesterol. However, saturated and trans fats can raise the levels of fat in your bloodstream. As a result, this may increase the risk of developing certain cardiovascular conditions, including heart disease.

An adult eating a salad, which is low in the saturated fats that may cause heart disease.
Boris Jovanovic/Stocksy United

For several decades, doctors have considered saturated fats as one of the major causes of heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that saturated fats can cause increased cholesterol levels, and high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees that eating a lot of saturated fats may lead to heart disease.

However, some recent studies provide some nuance to the topic.

For example, a 2021 study suggested that people consuming high quantities of saturated fats did not have a higher risk of developing heart disease than other individuals who limited their consumption. However, the study pointed out that certain foods high in saturated fats may have an overall effect on your heart’s health.

A 2021 review of studies even suggested that a higher intake of saturated fats from dairy products like cheese may reduce the risk of developing heart disease. However, more research is needed to confirm this finding.

Finally, 2020 research found that while reducing your saturated fat intake could decrease your risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack or stroke, it did not reduce the risk of death from heart disease or other health conditions.

It’s important to note that official recommendations still advise limiting your consumption of saturated fats where possible to lower the risk of heart disease — but you don’t need to cut them out completely.

The AHA recommends getting no more than 6% of your daily calories from saturated fats. For instance, if you have around 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 calories should come from saturated fat.

Other factors affecting heart disease

People can develop heart disease due to several health conditions or lifestyle habits. This may include:

Foods to limit

You can find saturated fats in several types of foods. These types of fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products as well as plant-based products such as palm, coconut, and palm kernel.

According to the American Heart Association, people should limit the consumption of saturated fats to between 5 and 6% of their recommended daily calorie intake.

Some of the foods containing saturated fats and that you may consider avoiding or limiting consumption include:

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • lard
  • poultry, particularly the skin
  • butter
  • cream
  • cheese
  • coconut oil
  • palm or palm kernel oil
  • ice cream
  • certain fried and baked foods

Foods to try

To help reduce the risk of heart disease, you can try to include more of the following foods in your diet:

  • Fruits: Examples include oranges, pears, apples, prunes, and bananas.
  • Vegetables: For instance, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy greens like kale, cabbage, and spinach.
  • Fat-free or low fat products: These include low fat milk, cheese, and other dairy products with reduced fat.
  • Protein-rich foods: For instance, legumes, nuts, salmon, tuna, tofu, eggs, or lean meats, like skinless turkey and chicken or lean ground beef.
  • Whole grains: Examples include brown rice, whole grain pasta and bread, quinoa, and oats.
  • Foods high in healthy fats: These include avocados, seeds and seed butter, salmon, nuts, and corn, sunflower, canola, or olive oil.

Heart disease treatment

If you have heart disease, doctors may recommend several medications to help manage and improve your symptoms and prevent complications based on your particular health conditions. This may include:

  • ACE inhibitors: These help lower your blood pressure and reduce the intensity at which your heart works. These include trandolapril (Mavik) and captopril (Capoten).
  • Beta-blockers: These also lower blood pressure by helping reduce how hard your heart works. Examples include acebutolol.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These help relax your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure, and include amlodipine (Norvasc).
  • Medications for weight management: These drugs, such as semaglutide (Ozempic), can help reduce your risk of coronary heart disease if you have obesity.
  • Drugs that lower your blood triglycerides: These can help manage your cholesterol levels alongside a heart-healthy diet, and they may include fibrates, such as gemfibrozil (Lopid), omega-3 fatty acids, or niacin supplements. 
  • Medications to manage blood sugar: These drugs, such as empagliflozin (Jardiance), liraglutide (Saxenda), and metformin (Riomet), can help reduce your risk of complications if you have heart disease and diabetes.
  • Nitrates: This includes drugs, such as nitroglycerin (Nitrostat), that dilate your coronary arteries to prevent and improve chest pain (angina).
  • Statins: These may include drugs such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and rosuvastatin (Crestor), which can help manage high blood cholesterol and prevent the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.

In some more serious cases of heart disease, doctors may advise undergoing heart surgery or other procedures, depending on your health conditions and other potential factors that may cause complications.

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Many people believe that saturated fats lead to heart disease, but recent research may be starting to call this into question. However, eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats can cause or worsen other health conditions, such as obesity, that have an association with heart disease.

The AHA and the CDC recommend limiting your intake of saturated fats for this reason, although you may not need to cut them out altogether.

Maintaining a moderate body weight and eating a balanced and healthy diet can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and other health conditions.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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