Does reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet help?

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Reducing the amount of saturated fats in your diet could somewhat lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal food products.

Food products contain different types of fat, which affect our metabolism in different ways. Basically, there are three categories:

  • Saturated fats increase the level of LDL cholesterol in our blood more than other fats. Large amounts of saturated fats are considered to be bad for the heart and blood vessels.
  • Unsaturated fats are considered to be healthy because they don't affect the level of LDL cholesterol as much.
  • Trans fats are sometimes produced when vegetable fats are used in industrial food processing or for deep-frying. Small amounts of them can also be found in animal food products.

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal food products, especially in

  • meat (mainly fatty meats like pork),
  • butter and lard,
  • cheeses with a high fat content, and
  • cream and related food products, such as sour cream.

Unsaturated fats are mainly found in fatty fish, vegetable fats and vegetable-based foods, including

  • salmon, tuna and mackerel,
  • vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil or olive oil,
  • nuts and seeds, and
  • avocados.

Trans fats produced in the food-processing industry or as a result of heating vegetable fats are particularly bad for the heart and vessels. That is why the total fat content in food products isn't allowed to include more than 2% industrially produced trans fats. But higher levels can occur, especially when food is deep-fried.

Research on dietary fats

Researchers from the , an international research network, looked into the effects of dietary saturated and unsaturated fats on cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers analyzed 15 comparative studies involving more than 55,000 participants. In each study, the participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups.

  • One group (the treatment group) was given activities to do with the aim of replacing the saturated fats in their diet with unsaturated fats as much as possible.
  • The participants in the other group (the control group) weren't given any activities to do.

The activities that were designed to help the participants change their eating habits varied. In some studies, they had nutrition and cooking classes, were given shopping tips or took part in practical exercises. But in many studies the participants were also asked to eat certain foods – for example, they bought their foods in special shops or were given products such as margarine spreads or oils for free. These differences make it quite difficult to compare the results of the individual studies.

What the research found

Overall, the risk of cardiovascular disease was lower in the groups that consumed fewer saturated fats. Expressed in numbers, when the researchers analyzed the results of all of the studies together, this is what they found:

  • In the control groups, 85 out of 1,000 participants developed a cardiovascular disease.
  • In the treatment groups, 70 out of 1,000 participants developed a cardiovascular disease.

In other words, dietary changes to include more unsaturated fats prevented cardiovascular disease in 15 out of 1,000 people.

But this difference was only seen in studies that lasted longer than two years. In other words, it's important that people make lasting changes to their diet if they want to improve their health.

The overall results of the analysis only provide a rough indication of the effect of changing your diet, though, because the results of the individual studies varied greatly. Many different factors can influence how successful dietary changes will be. For example, men might benefit more from changing their diet because they have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease to begin with.

Hooper L, Martin N, Jimoh OF et al. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2020; (8): CD011737.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on February 10, 2022
Next planned update: 2025

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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