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Is Saturated Fat Bad, Or Good For You?

By Charlie Seltzer, MD / November 30, 2017

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.

Show 4 References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Hoenselaar, R. Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. 2010. Nutrition: 28:118-23.
  4. Though, as explained in this Health Markers article, not all LDL is bad

37Comments

  • Bill C says:

    Analysis that claims to combine the results of vastly disparate studies into one comprehensive finding is always highly suspect, especially in terms of human health and nutrition. The campaign against animal fat has yet to produce credible evidence supporting its righteousness, since it claims causality in the face of well-documented counter-examples. These are charmingly dismissed as "paradoxes" when in fact they prove there is no simple cause-effect relationship between fat intake and much of anything other than total calories. As only one example, consider the Inuit diet consisting almost exclusively of animal fat and fatty protein, with very little of anything found in the "Food Pyramid" (or its cosmetically transformed cousin, the Balanced Plate). Inuit do not have significant CVD. (see http://www.naturalnews.com/022868.html# ). If animal fat directly caused CVD, our northern friends would have a much larger incidence of CVD than most Western citizens, yet the opposite is the case.

    Humans existed for a relatively long time as consumers of large amounts of animal fat with no apparent ill effect. The Paleo case is grounded in that fact, along with the archaeological evidence of the relative loss of health that seemed to occur with the rise of agriculture. Combine this with the disastrous rise of obesity and diabetes that has occurred as the Herbivorous Huns have invaded the past forty years of American dietary recommendations, and you have a strong case that our diets are more threatened by that which grows in the earth than anything which walks upon it.

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  • Krunopz says:

    Interesting theme... But, whatever you say about it, it sums that we all have the same problem . Our cultures teach us to choose wrong sources of nutrients. That is, instead of using variety, we are concentrated on same kind of foods, all the time. That's why we have problems with both kinds of fat... But this is just my opinion

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  • Dave says:

    At age 66, I have switched my beliefs concerning fats. Recently I have been eating sat. fats from raw milk,yogurt eggs, homemade kefir,raw cheese, all from a farm within my state every day. I workout hard 6 days a week and supplement with krill and a dozen others. I do blood work annually testing for CRP and lipids(VAP) so I can see small density LDL"s. I'm do for my check up this week. Now I will know how sat. fat effects me individually, and that's how I think everyone ought to figure it out. I'll post my results for anyone interested.

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    • Kristin says:

      I'd be interested too :)

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Please do. Agreed, we're all different and have different responses. Hope the check up goes well.

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  • Joseph Henry says:

    Lets get down to the final point. Though saturated fats may seem unhealthy, its been part of our lives. Lets just be aware about it and take it in moderation.

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  • Ed Kirwan says:

    Two men move from the countryside to the city. Eighteen months later, one is thriving, the other has died from pollution. Genetics? That's the thinking now. One man's meat is another man's poison indeed. p.s. Are oats gluten free?

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  • Diogo Britto says:

    Killer article. This website is the best when it comes about getting deeper into inconclusive health "facts" . Keep it up

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks, Diogo. Much appreciated!

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  • Lee Sandwith says:

    Thanks for this article guys. I found it extremely informative, interesting and very well written. Very good work! I'm planning on sharing this on my blog too as it's so good :)

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks, Lee. Charlie did an awesome job offering an objective, balanced viewpoint.

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  • John Leyva says:

    I think this was a great article and Charlie hit the nail on the head when he compared the benefits of eating a natural meal of filet, sweet potatoes and vegetables vs fat free cookies. The difference between the health benefits of food go beyond simple calories or what type of calories consumed (saturated fat) versus quality of food.

    I just wanted to throw in two quick notes on saturated fat:
    1 – Saturated fat is usually benign for a large percentage of the population when coming from whole food sources or in the case of the link, breast milk (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11745-010-3445-9/fulltext.html) . With that said, there are different genetic factors that contribute greatly to heart disease and the increases in heart disease with saturated fat intake. For instance, the APO allele has three types, E2, E3 and E4. E3 is the most common form and is estimated that about 65-70% of the population carries this allele, with the other 30 % being split between the E2 and E4. It’s this 15% of the population with the E4 variant that can really benefit from switching from Saturated fats to polyunsaturated fats and lowering fat intake overall.
    http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=717641
    http://www.sld.cu/galerias/pdf/sitios/genetica/apo_e.pdf

    With that said, the E4 allele also usually doesn’t see much benefit from taking Omega 3’s (fish oil), at least not when taken by itself. If instead, they have a diet high in anti-oxidant rich foods, they will generally glean benefits from an increase in fish, and hence omega 3 intake.
    http://www.lmreview.com/articles/view/omega-3s-apoe-genotype-and-cognitive-decline/

    And that’s just one example. There are a bunch of other genetic factors that come into play from APOA1 gene, inflammatory genes (Interleukin-6, -174G>6: - smoking is really bad for these individuals), (http://jn.nutrition.org/content/141/3/380.full) etc (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2881676/) .

    2 –Research has only really started to point out that it’s not saturated fats that are inherently bad, but when combined with high-glycemic carbs (think fat and sugar) it can be particularly bad. In addition, replacing saturated fat with sugar really does no one any favors, as the body will start to convert that sugar to fat even in lower calories situations if it’s a high carb/low fat diet in those with metabolic disorders (aka, those with the highest risk of cardiovascular disease).
    http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/21978979

    In the end, I do think the point made in the article was the right one that you should care more about the quality of your food than what particular percentage of your calories come from saturated fat if health is your main concern.

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    • Charlie Seltzer, MD says:

      John,
      That was just plain awesome.

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  • Rick says:

    I think the key about saturated fats is this: Does the saturated fat come from any animal or plant? If it comes from an animal, was that animal grass fed or grain fed? Grass fed animals tend to have a much, much higher omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio than grain fed animals and contribute to a healthier brain and body. Most saturated fats in the American diet today come from stressed out grain fed animals that are very high in omega-6 fats. Compare this with animals from before the 1940's when animals were raised in fields eating grass.

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  • Joshua Meyers says:

    Great Article Charlie! Sometimes it seems like the media will flip flop on what is good for you. Eggs are good some years and later studies find that they are bad; only to later discover again that they are good for you. I feel this is true for the question, “Is saturated fat bad for you?” I think you summarized it nicely in that it is the quality of food, and the quality of your foods, food.

    I like to add Organic Coconut oil to my protein shakes to get a healthy dose of saturated fat in my diet. I think it adds a nice little flavor to it as well.

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