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Are saturated fats really bad for you? Maybe not

Monday - 3/24/2014, 4:56am  ET

STEAK GETTY IMAGES
You still have to be careful of portion size and avoid artificial food, but Boston Globe health blogger Deborah Kotz says a new study indicates that an occasional steak isn't going to cause heart problems. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- It's been a diet truism for years: Avoid saturated fat, such as in meats and full-fat dairy products. But a new study says that might not be such a sure thing.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was what Deborah Kotz, health blogger for the Boston Globe, calls "a meta-analysis" -- a study of studies -- that looked at how much of a difference diet changes such as switching from whole milk to skim, or butter to olive oil, made in the incidence of heart disease.

"It really did not, even though it did raise the bad levels of LDL cholesterol," Kotz told WTOP's Lori Lundin.

So you can eat whatever you want, right? Not quite, Kotz says. It turns out that portion size makes a lot more difference to your heart and your overall health than fat levels.

"Moderation is key here," Kotz says -- a huge cup of frozen yogurt will leave you worse off than a tiny bit of real ice cream, with all its fat and sugar, she says.

"If we want to have that grilled steak on the barbecue, a small amount of that -- maybe once a week ... that's probably fine for our hearts. If we are overloading on calories and portions, thinking that just because we're not eating saturated fat, it's fine, that's an error," Kotz says.

Choose the foods that you love -- and stay smart, by avoiding junk food and going for fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- but a few natural fats (as opposed to artificial trans fats) once in a while is not going to make a huge difference, Kotz says.

"It's not so clear that saturated fat is as bad a culprit as they thought it was," she says.

So why are there all the studies warning of the dangers of red meat and other fats? Well, processed red meat, such as deli meat, is still a really bad idea, Kotz says, but most likely that's due to the other chemicals in the meat, rather than the saturated fat in the meat itself.

And if you're eating a lot of saturated fats, you're probably not finding room for fruits and vegetables, Kotz says.

"A lot of us sort of thought [that] if we just cut out one or two ingredients from our diet, we can eat as much as we want, and that's where we've really seen our waistlines getting larger and larger," Kotz says.

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