by Rachael Link, MS, RD
For years, saturated fat has been vilified and characterized as an unhealthy dietary component that should be avoided at all costs for the sake of your heart and your health. Even within the last few weeks, the World Health Organization made headlines by recommending that saturated fat should make up no more than 10 percent of the diet, a guideline echoed by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well. (1, 2)
However, despite the whirlwind of controversy, other research has found that some of the assumptions made about saturated fats may not actually be supported by science. Recent evidence, for instance, suggests that saturated fat may not be directly linked to heart disease, and several studies have actually turned up some benefits of this fatty acid.
So is saturated fat good or bad? And should you be nixing it from your diet or loading up on the butter and ghee? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Saturated Fat?
So what exactly is this controversial fat, and what is the saturated fat importance in the diet?
The official saturated fat definition is any fatty acid with no double bonds present between the carbon molecules. Breaking down the scientific jargon, though, saturated fats are simply a type of fatty acid found in a variety of foods, including meat and dairy products.
Saturated fat has been extensively studied for its effects on health, but recommendations from health organizations remain unclear on just how much should be in your diet. Although a high intake of saturated fat can come with some negative effects on health, it has also been associated with a number of benefits, from better brain health to a reduced risk of stroke.
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated fats are fatty acids that contain at least one double bond within the chain. These fatty acids are further broken down into two categories based on the number of double bonds they contain and are classified as a monounsaturated fat or a polyunsaturated fat.
While the benefits of saturated fats have been hotly debated, the health effects of unsaturated fats are well-established. These healthy fats are widespread throughout the diet and can be found in a variety of vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, fish and vegetables. Studies show that unsaturated fatty acids can aid in weight loss, decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of heart disease. (3, 4, 5)
When comparing saturated vs. unsaturated fat, it’s generally recommended that unsaturated fatty acids should make up the majority of your fat intake. One study in 2015 showed that replacing just 5 percent of calories from saturated fats with an equal amount from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids resulted in a 25 percent and 15 percent reduced risk of heart disease, respectively. (6) However, both offer a unique set of benefits and can be included in moderation as part of a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Is Saturated Fat Good for You? 5 Benefits of Saturated Fat
- Forms the Foundation of Cell Membranes
- Increases Beneficial HDL Cholesterol
- May Reduce Risk of Stroke
- Boosts Brain Health
- Ideal for High-Heat Cooking
1. Forms the Foundation of Cell Membranes
Saturated fatty acids are absolutely essential to sustaining life. In fact, saturated fats form the very foundation of the cell membrane, accounting for approximately 50 percent of most animal membranes. (7)
The cell membrane is responsible for enclosing and protecting the cell as well as controlling the movement of substances in and out. A defect in the cell membrane can cause the cell to stop working properly and may even contribute to a variety of membrane-related diseases as well, making it crucial to get enough saturated fat in your diet. (8)
2. Increases Beneficial HDL Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found throughout the body. It’s a vital component of the cell membrane and is also necessary for the synthesis of hormones, vitamin D and bile acids. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol can build up in the blood, causing arteries to narrow and increasing the risk of heart disease. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, on the other hand, can actually be beneficial; it moves through the bloodstream, removing LDL cholesterol from the arteries and carrying it back to the liver.
Saturated fats are often considered “good fats” because they have been shown to increase levels of HDL cholesterol in the body. (9, 10) Having higher levels of HDL cholesterol has been shown to be beneficial for heart health and may even reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. (11)
3. May Reduce Risk of Stroke
A stroke occurs when blood flow to your brain is interrupted, resulting in brain cell death or damage. According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death and one of the leading causes of disability in the United States. (12)
Although more research is needed, some studies have found that eating more saturated fat could lead to a reduced risk of stroke. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for instance, showed that saturated fat intake was associated with a lower risk of death from stroke among 58,453 adults over a period of 14 years. (13)
4. Boosts Brain Health
Certain types of saturated fat, such as coconut oil, have gained widespread attention in recent years due to their potential brain-boosting benefits. The medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are believed to exert a protective effect on brain health, especially when it comes to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
One study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging showed that consuming medium-chain triglycerides was able to improve cognitive performance for some people with mild forms of Alzheimer’s disease. (14)
5. Ideal for High-Heat Cooking
Saturated fats like butter, ghee and coconut oil are perfect when it comes to roasting, baking, sautéing, grilling or frying. This is because they don’t have double bonds, which makes them more resistant to oxidation and damage caused by high-heat cooking. Polyunsaturated fats, meanwhile, oxidize much more easily and are highly susceptible to breakdown, oxidation and nutrient loss.
The high stability of saturated fats can also prevent the formation of free radicals in the body. These are harmful compounds that can build up and contribute to chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. (15) Opting for a heat-stable cooking oil and incorporating plenty of high-antioxidant foods in your diet is the best way to fight free radical damage and ward off chronic disease.
Saturated Fat Myths
- Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease
- Eating Fat Makes You Fat
- Foods High in Saturated Fat Are Unhealthy
1. Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease
Saturated fat has long been classified as unhealthy and bad for you. This was based on the discovery that saturated fat raises cholesterol levels, leading researchers to assume that it must automatically contribute to heart disease.
However, studies have yet to demonstrate an association between saturated fat intake and heart disease. In fact, a Cochrane review published in 2011 showed that decreasing saturated fat intake had no effect on the risk of death or death from heart disease. (16) Similarly, another massive review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine confirmed that there is no direct link between saturated fat consumption and the risk of heart disease. (17)
2. Eating Fat Makes You Fat
Since the boom of the low-fat diet craze in the 1980s and 1990s, dieters have flocked to low-fat and fat-free products in the supermarket under the impression that less fat in the diet translates to less fat in the belly and on the hips.
This is far from the truth, however. Filling up on healthy fats can actually promote satiety and keep you feeling full to reduce appetite and cravings. It can also decrease levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, more effectively than carbohydrates. (18) For this reason, diet patterns like the ketogenic diet, which focuses on upping your intake of healthy fats, can keep your appetite in check and help the pounds slide off.
3. Foods High in Saturated Fat Are Unhealthy
There’s a common misconception that high fat foods are automatically artery-clogging and unhealthy. While there are certainly some foods high in saturated fat that are better off out of your diet altogether, there are many sources of saturated fat that are super healthy and rich in important nutrients.
Grass-fed beef, for example, contains a hearty dose of protein, niacin, zinc and selenium along with a host of other essential vitamins and minerals. Similarly, dark chocolate is high in saturated fat but also rich in antioxidants, manganese and copper. Other foods like eggs, milk and cheese supply an array of important nutrients to the diet.
Is Saturated Fat Bad? Saturated Fat Side Effects
While saturated fat does come with its fair share of health benefits and may not be a direct cause of heart disease as was once assumed, there are some saturated fat side effects that should still be considered.
First of all, saturated fat can raise beneficial HDL cholesterol levels — but it can also raise bad LDL cholesterol as well. Studies show that eating saturated fat may be associated with higher levels of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream, which is a known risk factor for heart disease. (19) Therefore, those who have high levels of LDL cholesterol may want to consider keeping their intake of saturated fat in moderation.
Research has also turned up some conflicting results on the effects of saturated fat on bone health. While one study did report that a higher intake of saturated fat was associated with higher bone mineral density in children, other research in both humans and animals has shown that it may be linked to lower bone mineral density and impaired calcium absorption. (20, 21, 22)
Additionally, not all saturated fats are great when it comes to your health. There are plenty of saturated fat foods to avoid, such as processed meats, deep-fried foods, baked goods and pre-packaged fatty snacks. While these foods do often contain a good amount of saturated fat, they are also often contain additives, trans fats, sodium, carcinogenic compounds or chemicals that should be avoided at all costs.
Healthiest Saturated Fat Foods
Not all saturated fats are created equally. While there are plenty of nutritious foods high in saturated fat, there are some not-so-healthy options out there as well. Here are a few of the healthiest saturated fat foods that you may want to consider adding to your diet:
Saturated Fat vs. Trans Fat
While the jury may still be out on exactly how much saturated fat should be in your diet, there’s no arguing that trans fats should be cut out altogether.
Although trans fats do occur naturally in small amounts in some foods, artificial trans fats are produced through a process called hydrogenation in which food manufacturers add hydrogen molecules to liquid vegetable oils to extend shelf life, enhance flavor and create a more solid texture in foods.
Trans fats are found primarily in processed products, such as donuts, cookies, cakes and crackers, and should be avoided at all costs, as studies show that eating trans fats can skyrocket the risk of heart disease. One large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine even found that the risk of coronary heart disease nearly doubled for each 2 percent increase in calories consumed from trans fats. (23)
Healthy Saturated Fat Recipes
Ready to get in your daily dose of saturated fats? Here are a few recipes using healthy saturated fat foods that you can try out:
- Dark Chocolate Coconut Clusters
- Mini Egg Frittatas
- Slow Cooker Beef Stew
- Coconut Oil Fat Bombs
- Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese Casserole
The spotlight has been on saturated fats since the emergence of the Seven Countries Study, a study started in 1958 by Ancel Keys that looked at the dietary patterns of countries around the world and their respective rates of heart disease. Keys hypothesized that a Mediterranean-style diet low in animal fats would be associated with lower rates of heart disease while diets rich in animal fats, such as meat, lard and butter, would have higher rates. In the study, it was found that higher levels of serum cholesterol were linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and saturated fat was believed to be the culprit. (24)
This spurred organizations like the American Heart Association to begin recommending to cut out saturated fat altogether in order to optimize heart health, despite a lack of solid evidence showing any direct link between fat intake and heart disease. For years, it was believed that a diet high in saturated fat not only promoted weight gain, but could also have detrimental effects on heart health as well.
In recent years, research has started clearing up the complex connection between saturated fat and heart disease. While replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fatty acids can have a positive effect on heart health, studies have continued to demonstrate that saturated fat alone has no direct effect on the risk of heart disease.
Although saturated fat has been associated with a number of health benefits, it should still be enjoyed only as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Be sure to also include a good amount of protein, fiber and unsaturated fats as well to optimize the health-promoting benefits of your diet.
Additionally, be sure to opt for healthy saturated fat foods and steer clear of processed junk and fried foods. These foods offer little to no nutritional value and often contain harmful compounds that may actually negate any of the beneficial effects of saturated fat.
And, as always, moderation is key with everything. So how much saturated fat per day should you be included in your diet? Most health organizations recommend sticking to no more than 10 percent of daily calories, although the American Heart Association suggests limiting intake to around 5 percent to 6 percent of calories. (25) However, as more and more research emerges examining the complex mechanisms of saturated fat in the body, we may begin to see a shift in these recommendations.
- What is saturated fat? Saturated fat is a type of fatty acid with no double bonds between the carbon molecules. Some common saturated fat examples include animal products, such as meat, eggs, dairy and butter.
- Although once demonized and dismissed as unhealthy, saturated fat may actually come with some health benefits. It makes up the foundation of your cell membranes, and research shows that it can increase levels of HDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of stroke, boost brain health and withstand high-heat cooking.
- However, saturated fat may also increase levels of LDL cholesterol and can negatively impact bone health. Some sources of saturated fat are also not so healthy and contain certain compounds that may actually be harmful.
- Stick to nutritious saturated fats, such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee, and enjoy these in moderation along with other healthy fats to maximize the health benefits of your diet.
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