Ask Dr. Dairy: Does Saturated Fat Increase the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease?

  • May 30, 2018

Guidance from medical and nutrition experts continues to state that consumption of saturated fat may increase LDL-cholesterol levels, which is linked to a person’s chance of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). However, a growing body of evidence is changing the dialogue on saturated fat ― including whole milk dairy foods. Emerging evidence from systematic reviews and meta-analysis of observational studies indicates saturated fat may not be associated with developing CVD or dying from it.

Similarly, emerging evidence indicates that consuming dairy foods, regardless of fat content, as part of a healthy calorie-balanced eating pattern can support health. Experts are beginning to recognize that when it comes to fat, food source matters. Interestingly, the links of dairy foods to health outcomes may be different than that of other foods that contain saturated fat. More research is needed to understand how consuming whole and reduced-fat dairy foods may impact risk for CVD.

The science on saturated fat intake and CVD continues to evolve. Until the scientific community reaches a new consensus, it is important that health and wellness professionals and the public embrace the current 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) when it comes to building healthy eating patterns.

Cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease and stroke, accounts for about one in three deaths in the U.S. However, lifestyle habits, including healthy eating, can help lower CVD risk.

According to the DGA, strong evidence supports an association of healthy eating patterns and a reduced risk for CVD. All the DGA healthy eating patterns include low-fat and fat-free dairy foods. However, each eating pattern allows for up to 10 percent of calories to come from saturated fat. This offers some leeway for people to eat foods containing saturated fat, such as whole milk, cheese or yogurt. However, they need to be mindful of other food choices to balance total saturated fat and calorie consumption.

For example, the saturated fat allowance for someone eating 2,000 calories per day is 22 grams. Cheddar cheese contains 8 grams of saturated fat per 1.5-ounce serving. That means there is room in a healthy eating plan for cheese or other nutrient dense foods that contain saturated fat.

People with existing CVD or related risk factors should follow the advice of their health care provider regarding diet and lifestyle.

Nutritional science continues to evolve. As new findings are published, and evidence builds, it will likely impact future recommendations. For example, the DGA follows a science-based process for reviewing new evidence and updating guidance every five years. Health organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation recognize that an overall healthy eating pattern is important rather than focusing on saturated fat alone. For more information, see our Science Summaries, Dairy and Cardiovascular Disease and Whole and Reduced-Fat Dairy Foods.