Aug. 9. 2019
Fats
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

Saturated fat has remained the subject of heated controversy over the years.

It seems like just about every other week, new research is released either praising saturated fatty acids for their health-boosting benefits or classifying them as artery-clogging and unhealthy.

The confusion surrounding saturated fat can be traced back to 1958, with the release of the Seven Countries Study. Physiologist Ancel Keys set out to study different dietary patterns around the world to try to determine how what we put on our plates could impact heart health and the development of chronic disease (1).

He found that countries that ate high amounts of fat also had higher rates of heart disease, fueling the theory that fat could possibly cause heart disease. Despite the many flaws in the study and the lack of concrete evidence, several organizations began advising Americans to reduce their intake of saturated fatty acids based on these findings to protect against heart disease.

Within the last few decades, multiple studies have called this common belief into question, demonstrating that saturated fat may not actually be linked to a higher risk of heart disease and may even be associated with several health benefits as well.

So is saturated fat bad for you? Or is it time to ditch the low-saturated fat diet and start practicing moderation instead? Keep reading for everything you need to know about this controversial fatty acid and how it can impact your health.

What is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fat is a type of dietary fat found in a variety of different foods. The main difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is their chemical structure. While saturated fatty acids don’t contain any double bonds between carbon molecules, unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond in their chain.

Saturated fats are primarily found in animal sources like meat, eggs, and dairy. However, they can also be found in a number of healthy ingredients as well. Let’s take a closer look at the saturated foods list and some of the health benefits and drawbacks of this common nutrient.

Saturated Fat Foods

Typically, animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy contain high amounts of saturated fatty acids. Here are some of the most common saturated fat examples:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Poultry with the skin
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Butter
  • Ghee
  • Lard
  • Cream
  • Eggs
  • Coconut oil

Other foods like processed meat, deep-fried foods, baked goods, and convenience meals may also contain high amounts of saturated fatty acids, along with other types of fat like trans fat.

However, keep in mind that not all foods high in saturated fat are created equal. Processed foods, for example, may contain high amounts of saturated fatty acids, but they are also often loaded with sodium, food preservatives, added sugar, and artery-clogging trans fats as well. Conversely, ingredients like coconut oil are high in saturated fats in the form of medium-chain triglycerides, which are a type of fatty acid associated with a multitude of powerful medicinal properties (2).

Opting for minimally processed foods whenever possible and keeping your intake of saturated fats in moderation is key to maximizing potential benefits while preventing adverse effects on health.

Saturated Fat Health Benefits

Despite their reputation as an unhealthy form of fat, saturated fatty acids are actually incredibly important to overall health. Not only do these fatty acids form the foundation of the cell membranes in the body, but they also help control which substances are able to flow in and out (3).

Another of the top saturated fat benefits is its potential impact on cholesterol levels. In particular, saturated fat has been shown to increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, a type of “good” cholesterol that moves through the blood vessels removing plaque build-up from arteries (4). This can be especially beneficial when it comes to heart health and disease prevention; one study conducted in Austria even noted that each 10 mg/dL increase in HDL cholesterol could be tied to a 2-3% reduction in heart disease risk (5).

Saturated fats may also offer protection against some neurological disorders. For starters, it’s been shown to be beneficial against stroke, a condition that can occur when blood flow to the brain is suddenly cut off. In one study of over 58,000 men and women, increased saturated fat consumption was associated with a lower risk of death from stroke over a 14-year period (6). Another study showed that medium-chain triglycerides, which are a type of saturated fat, could improve memory and processing speed in people with Alzheimer’s disease (7).

Additionally, saturated fats are great for cooking. Thanks to their double bonds, saturated fatty acids tend to have a higher smoke point than unsaturated fatty acids like vegetable oils, which can break down and oxidize when exposed to high temperatures. Swapping the vegetable oil for butter, ghee, or coconut oil in certain recipes can block the build-up of harmful, disease-causing free radicals.

Are Saturated Fats Bad For Health?

Saturated fatty acids have been a subject of controversy since the 1950s, but recent research suggests that they might not be as bad as was once assumed. In fact, multiple studies have found that cutting down on your consumption of saturated fatty acids may not actually reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease (8). Other research has found that scaling back on the saturated fatty acids is also not associated with a lower risk of death or dying from heart disease (9).

But just because saturated fatty acids may not directly cause heart disease doesn’t mean that you should start piling on the bacon and butter, as overdoing it can also come with a slew of negative side effects. In recent years, there have been multiple studies strengthening the potential link between saturated fat and cholesterol levels. Researchers have found that, although saturated fat can increase levels of good HDL cholesterol, it can also bump up levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is tied to a higher risk of heart disease (10). Therefore, if you have any heart problems or history of high cholesterol, it’s definitely a good idea to limit your intake.

Interestingly, some emerging research shows that saturated fats could negatively impact bone health as well. For instance, a 2006 study in Journal of Nutrition showed that increased saturated fat intake may be associated with lower bone mineral density (11). Another animal study also showed that giving rats a high-fat diet enriched with saturated fatty acids could adversely affect bone health. According to researchers, saturated fatty acids may increase bone loss by interfering with bone formation and the production of bone cells (12).

Additionally, keep in mind that not all foods high in saturated fat are great when it comes to your health. The saturated fat in eggs, for example, may not be harmful because it’s balanced out by the wealth of other nutrients supplied in each serving. Meanwhile, the saturated fatty acids found in processed meats—like beef jerky, salami, or deli meats—are typically combined with high amounts of sodium and preservatives, which could potentially amplify any adverse effects on health.

Be sure to pick healthy, minimally processed sources of saturated fats whenever possible, including foods like coconut oil, dark chocolate, and eggs. However, you should still keep overall consumption in moderation and pair these ingredients with other healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados as part of a healthy diet.

Public health agencies like the World Health Organization and the USDA recommend limiting intake of saturated fat per day to less than 10% of total calories (13, 14). On a standard 2,000 calorie diet, this means that you should be eating no more than 22 grams of saturated fatty acids per day, which is equal to about three tablespoons of butter.

Healthy Saturated Fat Recipes

In moderation, saturated fatty acids can be included as part of a nutritious, well-rounded diet. Here are a few healthy recipes featuring foods high in saturated fat:

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More and more mounting research suggests that saturated fatty acids may not be as harmful as was once believed. In fact, some studies have found that this form of fat may actually be tied to several benefits and is even considered essential to certain aspects of health.

However, more is not necessarily better when it comes to saturated fatty acids. And while some types can carry benefits, other ingredients high in saturated fatty acids may not quite be so stellar for health. For this reason, it’s important to select healthy sources of saturated fatty acids whenever possible and moderate your daily saturated fat intake to prevent negative side effects. Additionally, be sure to enjoy a variety of other health fats in your diet as well, such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados.

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