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Dietitian Julia Zumpano joins the Butts and Guts podcast once again, this time to discuss saturated fats. Listen to learn more about what foods high in saturated fats are okay to consume, as well as ones to avoid, along with how they can impact your health.

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Saturated Fats

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Scott Steele: Butts and Guts, a Cleveland Clinic podcast, exploring your digestive and surgical health from end to end.

Dr. Scott Steele: Hi again, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Butts and Guts. I'm your host, Scott Steele, the Chair of Colorectal Surgery and President of Main Campus here at Cleveland Clinic in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. And today, I am absolutely pleased to welcome a fourth-time guest, Julia Zumpano, who is a registered dietitian here at the Cleveland Clinic. And today, we're going to talk a little bit about something that we have not talked in depth about before, and that's saturated fats. Julia, welcome back to Butts and Guts.

Julia Zumpano: Thank you for having me again, Dr. Steele.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, for those who haven't listened to the three prior episodes, can you once again tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? Where you're from, where did you train, and how did it come to the point that you're here at the Cleveland Clinic?

Julia Zumpano: Sure. So, I have been a dietitian for about 18 years. All of that time was spent at the Cleveland Clinic. I trained as an intern at the Cleveland Clinic. So, the total time has been 20 years. And I went to the University of Akron for my undergrad and grew up south of Cleveland but was born outside the country in Northern Macedonia.

Dr. Scott Steele: That is fantastic. And Go Zips! So today, we're going to talk a little bit about saturated fat. So, to start, can you first explain a little bit more about what saturated fat is in food?

Julia Zumpano: Sure. So, saturated fat is a type of dietary fat that is saturated with hydrogen that has single bonds between carbons, which makes it a solid fat at room temperature. So, foods that are high in saturated fat are typically solid like butter, lard, cheese, the fat in whole milk, fatty cuts of meat, the skin of meat. And then coconut and palm oil are common sources of saturated fat.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, you mentioned this a little bit, but give us a little bit more. So, what types of food are high in saturated fat?

Julia Zumpano: So really, meats, cheeses and full fat dairy, and then some of the harder vegetable oils like coconut and palm oil.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, "truth or myth?" Truth or myth: saturated fat should be no more than five to 6 percent of your total daily calories.

Julia Zumpano: According to the American Heart Association, this is true. That is their guideline.

Dr. Scott Steele: Are people more likely to consume a high level of saturated fat in a snack or in a meal?

Julia Zumpano: It depends on what you're consuming. I don't know if there's necessarily one versus the other. A lot of people tend to eat super healthy meals and then snack on unhealthy foods throughout the day. Or it might just be they're consuming one or two meals that are just fast food based. So, it really, really can vary.

But in the meal form, you're going to get it from your fatty or processed meats, heavily cheese-based items, fried or processed foods, fast foods. From your snacks, you're going to get it from snack foods, whether they're salty or sweet. Those are all sources of saturated fat.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, you take a lot of them in. But how can high levels of saturated fat impact your digestive system and body overall?

Julia Zumpano: Saturated fat has been linked to increasing your LDL cholesterol, your low density lipo protein, which is what we consider the bad levels of cholesterol. This can lead to more plaque buildup and atherosclerosis in the arteries, which means the hardening of the plaque in the arteries, which again can lead to increased cardiovascular events. So, that is really where we try to limit that.

Recently, that concept has been questioned. So, I think we're really looking at the picture and the diet as a whole versus just focusing on one entity of the diet, which is just saturated fat alone.

Studies have shown, too, that dietary fat can change the amount and type of microbes in your gut. They looked at a study and when pairing high saturated fat diet with a high sugar diet, your good gut bacteria decreased significantly, which we know is not super surprising. High saturated fat, high sugar diets, we know can really decrease healthy bacteria and slow gut motility and obviously lead to other health issues like diabetes and heart disease. So, no surprise there. But we do know that when you increase healthy fats coming from plant-based oils, which are considered monounsaturated fats and fiber, that helps increase your good gut bacteria.

Dr. Scott Steele: Are there any foods that are high in saturated fat that are actually good for your health?

Julia Zumpano: Yeah, so I believe that there are. So, egg yolks are high in saturated fat, but I think there are a lot of benefits to eating egg yolks. I think some grass-fed meats that are semi-lean, some of the saturated fat in there I think is fine because you're getting so much nutritional benefit and protein. I think small amounts of whole milk dairy products can safely be consumed, too, like whole milk Greek yogurt or even just regular like cottage cheese that's whole milk. I think there's a lot of benefits to those foods, and the saturated fat in there I think can be safely consumed without negative impact.

Dr. Scott Steele: Julia, I want to circle back to something you just said just to dig in a little bit more. So, can high levels of saturated fat cause certain diseases over time? Is it just the association of what the condition can lead to, like how you said heart disease and diabetes? Or is it they all go hand in hand? If you're high in saturated fat, maybe you have obesity or maybe a smoker? Is it an association or a causation?

Julia Zumpano: This question is really difficult to answer, to be honest. Because it's not just one nutrient that can cause a disease - and we know that. We know that saturated fat is not the cause of heart disease, per se. I think it depends on so many different factors like the type of saturated fat you're consuming and what else you're consuming it with. So, for example, if you're consuming saturated fat in the form of fast food or commercial desserts, then yes, it can likely cause disease if you're eating it consistently over a long period of time. Because we know that there are other negative effects to those foods, like their refined grains, and high in sugar, and high in sodium. So, the combination of all of those things leads to disease when consumed consistently over time.

But if you're consuming it in the form of grass-fed beef alongside a diet rich in whole foods or high fiber, then likely that's not going to necessarily cause disease. It's a complicated question to answer, but in the end, one nutrient is not going to lead to disease. It's really the combination of what you're eating.

Dr. Scott Steele: What are some alternatives for foods that are typically high in saturated fat? So, if I'm on a diet that's high in saturated fat, what other foods can I look for?

Julia Zumpano: I would suggest replacing some of those saturated fat foods with liquid oils. So, of course, I like extra virgin olive oil. Avocados would be a good source of monounsaturated fat that you could replace. Nuts and seeds are good mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. So, nut butter like almond butter, a natural peanut butter, those are great sources of fat. We want to look for more of the unsaturated fats versus the saturated and then small to moderate amounts of saturated fats from healthy sources are okay to have.

Dr. Scott Steele: Should children and adults be equally concerned about their saturated fat intake?

Julia Zumpano: Children do not need to be concerned, for they need essential fatty acids for brain growth and development. Fat is essential for them during their growth stage. But if a child has very high cholesterol, which we call familial hypercholesterolemia, then they may need to be on a little bit more of a restricted diet depending on what their cardiologist may suggest.

Dr. Scott Steele: If I go out and have high consumption of saturated fat in a very short period of time, is there something I can do to offset that?

Julia Zumpano: There's really no offset. I suppose you could probably consume large amounts of fruit and vegetables for the next couple of days and do a lot of exercise, but there's really not necessarily an offset. It's really just trying to focus on moderation. And, in general, try to have as healthy a diet as you can most of the time.

For when you have those small periods of time where you do have maybe higher levels, it's going to be offset by your overall healthy intake that's consistent over time.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, Julia, probably the reason we're even talking about this is because saturated fats in general may be just yummy and people like to eat them. So, as you say, what are some tips to helping people cut back on saturated fat intake?

Julia Zumpano: I would say begin with your sources of processed saturated fat first. We know that's going to have the most negative impact. So that's things like store-bought baked goods, snack foods, processed meats and cheeses, convenience foods, fast foods. So, those are the ones you want to begin with really cutting out.

And then, slowly look at where you can replace some heavy sources of saturated fat in your diet with a better alternative. Like I mentioned, instead of putting butter on your toast, maybe you put natural peanut butter or avocado on your toast. Instead of putting cheese on your eggs, maybe we do some salsa, or we cook the eggs in extra virgin olive oil.

So, look at the swaps that you're reasonably going to make and then allow those foods you really don't want to give up or change, allow your saturated fat to come from those select special foods that you still want to enjoy. But if you've made enough of an impact on other portions of your diet, then you can still enjoy a small moderate amount.

Dr. Scott Steele: Well, those are great tips. And so now it's time for our quick hitters. And Julia, since I've asked you several of these in the past, I've tried a few new ones. So, first of all, if I hit a play on your playlist, what song would come on?

Julia Zumpano: Oh. Probably, gosh, that's a hard one to answer because my kids are constantly on my playlist. So, it would most likely be a song from the soundtrack of a movie called Home because they take over my music anymore.

Dr. Scott Steele: That's fantastic. And so, what was your worst hairstyle looking back?

Julia Zumpano: Oh, definitely back when Jennifer Aniston was popular, and she had her cute little layered look. And I have very curly hair, so I decided to go that route. It did not go very well.

Dr. Scott Steele: That's fantastic. So, number three, what is your favorite color to wear?

Julia Zumpano: Favorite color to wear would probably be white.

Dr. Scott Steele: That's fantastic. And so, give us a final take home message for our listeners, especially in regard to saturated fat.

Julia Zumpano: I think, in general, when you look at your diet, you really want to focus on whole foods as much as you possibly can; minimally processed foods. And that allows you to have a little bit of indulgence here and there. So, remember that saturated fat when coming in healthy sources is not bad for you. And even in processed foods, when done in moderation and limited quantities and frequency, it's okay. But really, heavily, heavily focusing on instead of what not to eat, what to eat. I think that's where we really want to focus on. What do we want to fill our diet with to keep ourselves healthy?

Dr. Scott Steele: Great advice. And so, to learn more about nutrition therapy here at the Cleveland Clinic, please visit clevelandclinic.org/nutrition. That's clevelandclinic.org/nutrition. You can also call (216)-444-3046. That's (216)-444-3046. Julia, once again, thank you so much for joining us here on Butts and Guts.

Julia Zumpano: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Scott Steele: That wraps things up here at Cleveland Clinic. Until next time, thanks for listening to Butts and Guts.

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Butts & Guts

A Cleveland Clinic podcast exploring your digestive and surgical health from end to end. You’ll learn how to have the best digestive health possible from your gall bladder to your liver and more from our host, Colorectal Surgery Chairman Scott Steele, MD.
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