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When you think of saturated fat, what’s the first food that comes to mind? Odds are, it’s beef or bacon.

Would it surprise you to know that the top sources of saturated fat in the American diet are cheese, pizza, grain-based desserts and dairy-based desserts?

Foods high in both fat and sugar appeal to our taste buds and make up many of our food choices. This makes it even more difficult to tease out what role, if any, saturated fat may play in disease. We do know that cutting back on saturated fat isn’t inherently healthy — it depends on what you replace it with.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, the question of whether saturated fat contributes to heart disease is not easily answered.

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Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats is heart-healthy. Mediterranean-style diets are a prime example, as they are low in saturated fat, but not low in total fat, thanks to olive oil, nuts and fatty fish. (Interestingly, most unprocessed meats contain almost as much monounsaturated fats as they do saturated fats.)

On the other hand, a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet may not be heart healthy, especially if it includes a lot of refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour.

We know that sugars, fructose in particular, are easily oxidized, which isn’t good for us. We saw this scenario play out in the decades where low-fat diets were king, and consumption of big plates of pasta and whole boxes of SnackWells cookies abounded.

Even if saturated fat isn’t the dietary devil we once thought it was, that doesn’t give us carte blanche to go crazy with bacon cheeseburgers. Recent studies have found that while red meat is not associated with heart disease, processed meats are. This includes bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami and most deli lunch meats — basically, any meat that is processed beyond simple cutting or grinding.

The preservatives used in processing may be the problem, but the types of foods that are often consumed alongside processed meats don’t help — for example, a hot dog on a white flour bun with a side of potato chips.

While our food choices do matter if we want to prevent heart disease, decades of evolving science have helped us understand that a “whole diet” approach — paying attention to what you do eat as well as what you don’t — is more effective. To that end:

• Go for quality over quantity. There is a difference between getting your saturated fat from grass-fed beef or pastured pork and getting it from an industrial beef patty or hot dog.

• Aim for balance. Serve that grass-fed beef with a large tossed salad (with olive-oil vinaigrette) or a pile of roasted vegetables … or both.

• Embrace variety. Mix up your protein choices to include more than just red meat: chicken, fish, beans and lentils.

• Cook low and slow. Meat contains small amounts of polyunsaturated fats and carbohydrates. Slow, lower heat cooking methods like stewing, braising or oven roasting may be healthier than grilling, broiling or frying.

Carrie Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a Master of Public Health degree in nutritional sciences from the University of Washington. Her blog is Contact her at

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