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What Is Saturated Fat?

what is saturated fat

Saturated fat has been vilified as one of the worst types of fat, but is this really the case? Read on for some saturated fat FAQs …

What is saturated fat?

Saturated fat occurs naturally in animal (and some plant) sources of food. Saturated fats are compounds that have a chemical makeup in which the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms. This means they’re mostly solid at room temperature.

What foods have saturated fat in them?

Saturated fats occur naturally in many types of foods. The majority come from animal products like meat and dairy products like butter, cheese, milk, ice cream, cream. Most vegetable oils contain some saturated fats, and certain types have a higher amount, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.

How does saturated fat affect my health?

The short answer is it’s complicated and it depends who you ask. Why? Because all saturated fats aren’t created equal. Certain types of saturated fat molecules, including the ones found in dark chocolate and meat (stearic acid) and coconut oil (lauric acid), may actually be good for you because they raise your HDL (good) cholesterol.

Research is still inconclusive but these two types of saturated fats do not appear to have the same harmful effects as other types. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that restricting saturated fat intake should not apply to stearic acid (the kind of saturated fat found in dark chocolate).

On the other hand, there are certain types of saturated fats that have shown some correlation to certain negative health effects, such as increased LDL cholesterol, blood lipids, and inflammation.

Let’s look at some specific research studies to see what the latest research says:

1. Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S (March 2010). Katan, Martijn B. ed. “Effects on Coronary Heart Disease of Increasing Polyunsaturated Fat in Place of Saturated Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials”. PLoS Medicine.

This study showed that consuming polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats reduces risk of heart disease.

2. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM (March 2010). “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

This meta-analysis, which combined data from 21 studies and included nearly 350,000 adults, found no evidence that saturated fat increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

3. Van Horn L et al (February 2008). “The evidence for dietary prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease”. Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

This study found that study participants who consume 25-35% of their calories from fats but <7% from saturated fats and trans fats reduced their risk of heart disease. Since trans fat, which has proven to be the worst type of fat, was grouped with saturated fat, this study doesn’t have much merit.

So how much saturated fat should I eat?

The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fats you eat each day to less than 7 percent of your total caloric intake. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, 140 of these calories or less should come from saturated fats, which equals about 15.5 grams.

However, the AHA and other major health organizations are still basing their findings on inconclusive data that’s fairly dated. Many health experts who support more saturated fat in the diet say that the latest recommendations for saturated fat intake are largely influenced by a famous research study from the 1950s conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys that found a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease mortality. This study has since proven to have had serious flaws, but the vilification of saturated fat has continued ever since.

Here’s my approach/recommendation on saturated fat:

I’ll quote a fairly reputable source, the Harvard School of Public Health, to sum up my stance:

“Cutting back on saturated fat will likely have no benefit, however, if people replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates—white bread, white rice, mashed potatoes, sugary drinks, and the like. Eating refined carbs in place of saturated fat does lower “bad" LDL cholesterol—but it also lowers the “good" HDL cholesterol and increases triglycerides. The net effect is as bad for the heart as eating too much saturated fat—and perhaps even worse for people who have insulin resistance because they are overweight or inactive.”

So this means:

  1. Eat more fat (not including trans) …
  2. Mostly from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources (olive oil; avocados; nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans; and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds; and fatty fish like tuna and wild salmon) …
  3. Add some saturated fat each day from whole foods like dark chocolate, grass-fed beef, and coconut oil …
  4. And eat less carbohydrates from grain sources.

I think David Katz, M.D., Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, said it best: “Choose wisely — foods close to nature, mostly plants — and you will avoid a host of ills, from the wrong kinds of fat, to excesses of sugar, salt, starch and calories.”

This article is #6 in my 9-part tutorial called “Healthy Eating 101”.

To go to the next article about the worst type of fat click here.

To read article #5 about good fats and why they’re important click here.