updated 7/5/2006 2:18:15 PM ET 2006-07-05T18:18:15

Recent studies remind us that the goal of eating less fat should focus on saturated fat. In the past, experts warned against saturated fat because of its direct relationship to LDL (“bad”) blood cholesterol and heart disease risk.

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Now research suggests that too much saturated fat may be problematic, even if your cholesterol isn’t high, because of its possible effects on insulin functions, potentially raising the risk of diabetes, cancer, ovarian disorders and other health problems.

Surveys suggest that American adults consume on average about 12 percent of their calories from saturated fat. However, the Advisory Committee for the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended a maximum target of 10 percent of calories for most adults.

This target translates to 20 grams (g) per day for the average adult, which you can calculate by adding grams of saturated fat listed on food labels. People who are smaller, less active, or trying to lose weight, would have an 18 g daily limit, while those with higher calorie needs could eat 24 or 25 g per day.

The traditional way of seeing whether these suggested limits reduce a person’s saturated fat intake enough has been by measuring LDL blood cholesterol levels. Each percentage-point drop in saturated fat consumption generally reduces LDL by one to two percent.

Cutting saturated fat from the current average to 10 percent would lower blood cholesterol by two to four percent. People whose blood cholesterol levels remain high even while meeting this goal may need to reduce their saturated fat intake even further, which would mean a maximum of 12 to 18 g per day.

Insulin problems
One of the new studies that links saturated fat consumption with problems in proper functioning of insulin suggests that initially too much saturated fat might decrease the pancreas’s secretion of insulin. Less insulin might then cause a chain of events that leads to over-production of insulin, resistance to its functioning and ultimately to the most common form of diabetes.

When high insulin levels become established, a host of other problems seem to develop. One problem is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which can cause fertility problems, irregular menstrual cycles and skin problems. An estimated 6 to 10 percent of all women have PCOS. Other problems include an increased risk of some cancers and possibly increased cognitive problems similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

Although these consequences could make you afraid to eat any saturated fat, studies seem to show that the cancer risk relates mainly to very high levels of saturated fat. For now, you should simply aim for amounts that keep your blood cholesterol healthy.

To reach the recommended levels of saturated fat, on average Americans need to cut 5 to 10 grams of it from their daily food choices.

There are many ways to achieve this reduction. Each time you exchange a deck-of-cards-sized portion of a higher-fat red meat for lean red meat, seafood or skinless chicken, you cut at least 5 grams of saturated fat. If your meat portions are larger than a deck of cards, reducing them to this size will eliminate even more. For each ounce of regular cheddar or other high-fat cheese you replace with lowfat cheeses, you slash saturated fat by 5 grams. A cup of 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole milk will save you 3 to 5 grams. Two teaspoons of soft margarine or olive oil instead of butter will get rid of more than 3 grams.

These small changes may give you far more than better blood cholesterol. You may find yourself enjoying better overall health.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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