Fat could almost be a four-letter word these days, but we actually do need some fat for our bodies to function. The question is, is saturated fat bad, or good for you?
To answer this question, we’ll look at what separates saturated fats from its fellow fats, the controversy surrounding saturated fats, and how it can affect your health.
What Makes Saturated Fat…Saturated?
To really understand what saturated fat is, we need to go into a little bit of chemistry. Glycerol, a sugar alcohol, binds with fatty acids to form triglycerides – chemically speaking, all fats are triglycerides.
To determine what kind of fat it is, you need to look at the amount of hydrogen and carbon atoms in the fatty acid itself. If all of the spaces for hydrogen atoms are taken up, we call the fat saturated. You may metabolize saturated fats differently depending on how long the chains of carbon atoms. When there is room for more hydrogen atoms, we call the fat unsaturated.
In general, saturated fats remain solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats remain liquid. Examples of food containing saturated fats are non-skim dairy, meat, and coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, vegetable oils, meat, and olives.
What Does Saturated Fat Do In My Body?
Actually, quite a bit. We need them for hormone production, as important components of cell membranes, and as a valuable source of energy. This all seems beneficial, right? So why is it drilled into our heads that saturated fat is bad for us?
The Controversy Around Saturated Fat
Many established health authorities, such as the American Diabetic Association, World Health Organization, American Heart Association, and the US FDA caution that saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease.
The idea is that saturated fats raise your cholesterol, and high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. Therefore, a low fat diet, which has been touted as “the healthy way to eat” for decades, should lower your risk of heart disease. Since the American Heart Association took this stance decades ago, the food industry has created and sold more “fat free” and “low fat” products (many of which are highly processed and contain significant amounts of added sugar) than anyone could count.
Still, the incidence of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes is rising, leading to the question, “is the ‘dietary fat = poor health’ theory flawed?” There is much confusion and controversy over this idea and you can find studies that support either side.
The Evidence That Saturated Fat Is Bad For You
In a 2011, a paper published in the Cochrane Library showed that people who restrict their saturated fat intake lower their risk of a cardiovascular event by 14%.1 Interestingly, lowering dietary fat intake did not reduce deaths, but even in the absence of dying, not having a heart attack is better than having a heart attack.
In a review of multiple research studies, authors found that you can reduce your risk of heart disease by substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats.2
There are other studies that reach the same conclusions, and most mainstream health authorities still maintain that lower fat diets are best for disease prevention.
The Evidence That Saturated Fat Is Good For You
In 2011, the Journal of Nutrition published an article that examines the research behind saturated fat and whether the evidence matches the recommendation to limit it.3
Saturated fat increases both the good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL).4 The ratio is unchanged. Consuming unsaturated fat improves the LDL/HDL ratio, and since essentially all natural sources of fat contain both unsaturated and saturated, the net effect of eating natural fats is an improvement in cholesterol. However, eating carbohydrates in place of fat does not improve cholesterol.
The author of the article pours over scientific literature and concludes: “The results and conclusions about saturated fat intake in relation to CVD, from leading advisory committees, do not reflect the available scientific literature.”
It is important to remember that cardiovascular disease depends on many things besides cholesterol. Many experts believe inflammation is the real issue (made worse by things such as obesity and diabetes), because it causes cholesterol to stick to the walls of arteries. No inflammation means no artery blockage, regardless of the amount of cholesterol floating around in the blood.
So, Should I Cut Out Saturated Fats?
Is saturated fat bad for you? The answer depends on who you ask, but overall lifestyle choices will always trump the intake of specific nutrients when it comes to health. A grass fed filet with a sweet potato and steamed asparagus contains a significant amount of saturated fat, but is more likely to support a healthy lifestyle rather than interfere with it. Fat free cookies, on the other hand, despite the absence of fat, are not nearly as healthy.
Moderation and common sense, practiced in such a way that allows you to maintain a low body fat percentage and live a healthy lifestyle, are much more important than whether you get 7% or 14% of your calories from saturated fat.
- Hooper L, Summerbell C, Thompson R, Sills D, Roberts F, Moore H, Smith G. Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Lib. May 2012. ↩
- Mozafarrian D, Micha R, Wallace S. Effects on coronary heart disease of increasing polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Mar 2010. PloS Med 7(3): e1000252. ↩
- Hoenselaar, R. Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. 2010. Nutrition: 28:118-23. ↩
- Though, as explained in this Health Markers article, not all LDL is bad ↩