Is saturated fat bad? Most of us have heard all the time that saturated fat is bad for you. Clogged arteries lead to heart attacks and so on.
On the other hand, today, fatty diets are in vogue. Some advocates go so far as to claim that saturated fats are useful and should not be limited at all (and some even urge you to eat more).
Another critical aspect: meals that contain saturated fat are often delicious.
As a result, we stand in front of the refrigerator in complete confusion. Will butter kill me?
As with many other things we eat (Carbohydrates! Red meat! Soy!) With saturated fat … it’s not so simple.
Let’s figure it out.
History of The “Is Saturated Fat Bad?” Issue
In 1978, the famous Seven Countries Study was published. In this work, conducted under the direction of the American physiologist Ansel Keys, it was noted:
- CVDs are more affected in countries with a high intake of saturated fat (such as the United States),
- CVDs are less affected in countries with low saturated fat intake (e.g., Italy, Greece, and Spain).
Based on this, Keys suggested that saturated fat leads to CVD and should be avoided. And unsaturated fats (from plant sources) protect against CVD. You have to lean on them.
By the way, it was these observations that led to the creation of the Mediterranean diet.
In short, the scientific (and then ordinary) world began to consider saturated fats harmful, mainly because of this study.
But is it really so? Is saturated fat bad?
Well, in general, yes, but everything is complicated. If you’ve been reading decent nutrition literature for a long time, then you already know that the magical world of food is not at all black and white.
For some, saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and the risk of CVD, while others do not. Everything – as usual – depends on the dose.
Too much saturated fat is not good for anyone (neither is water, vegetables, protein, etc. – nothing new).
But in the half-century since Keys’ study, scientists have continued to study the issue, so now we can tell more about fats.
Fats: a Brief Course
Before discussing saturated ones in particular, let’s talk about fats in general.
All the fats we eat (triglycerides), as a rule, have one glycerol “backbone” to which three fatty acids are attached. Here it is clearly:
Each fatty acid is composed of a carbon “chain” of varying lengths (from 2 to 24 atoms). And each carbon atom has two open “slots” to form bonds with two hydrogen atoms.
And how these slots are filled determines the chemical structure of the fatty acid.
The terms “saturated”, “monounsaturated,” and “polyunsaturated” describe fatty acids with different chemical structures (which is why they affect our body in different ways).
What is Saturated Fat?
These fatty acids (and fats) have a “saturated” carbon chain: each carbon is bonded to two hydrogen atoms.
Examples of saturated fatty acids of various lengths:
- butyric acid (4 carbon atoms, produced by intestinal bacteria by fermentation of fibers),
- caprylic acid (8 carbon atoms, found in coconut),
- palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms, found in palm oil and animal fats),
- stearic acid (18 carbon atoms, found in red meat and cocoa butter),
- arachidic acid (20 carbon atoms found in peanuts).
Saturated vs Unsaturated: What’s the Difference?
Monounsaturated fats have one double bond between carbon atoms (because they have not bonded to hydrogen atoms).
And polyunsaturated fatty acids have several double bonds between carbon atoms.
Here’s an easy way to tell if it’s saturated or unsaturated without taking it to the lab:
If it is solid or semi-solid at room temperature (21 ℃), then it is most likely saturated (there are, of course, a few exceptions)—for example, butter, coconut, and cocoa butter.
If it is liquid, then, most likely, unsaturated. For example, sunflower and olive oils.
The fact is that the carbon double bonds “twist” the formula of unsaturated fatty acids. The substance is not so dense and “melts” at room temperature. Saturated fatty acid molecules remain straight, and even the substance is denser and harder.
Most of the foods we eat contain a mixture of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Find more effects of these fats on muscle grows here ⬇️
Trans Fats: Here Are the Really Bad Guys
And the last one is trans fatty acids. If you really want to stigmatize and curse a certain type of fat, then you need to avoid these guys.
Trans fatty acids are usually obtained from industrial food processing when polyunsaturated fats are artificially “saturated” with additional hydrogen.
Hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids straightens the molecule so that these trans fat mutants now look (and act) like saturated fat.
This is what manufacturers really like because now their products can collect dust on the shelves for much longer.
And our body doesn’t really like trans fats.
Trans fatty acids are directly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, complications during pregnancy, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and allergies [1, 2, 3].
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even determined that industrial hydrogenated fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and are taking steps to eliminate them from food .
But for now, trans fats are everywhere. Margarine, cooking oils, and a variety of processed foods and baked goods, in general, any product that contains “partially hydrogenated butter” contains trans fats.
WHO recommends limiting trans fat intake to 1% (or less) of your daily calorie intake .
Note: There are also several natural trans fats called ruminant trans fatty acids, such as conjugated linoleic acid and vaccenic acid. They are formed by bacteria in the stomach of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats). And – unlike industrial trans fats – they are not associated with negative health effects .
Saturated Fat Foods
So, which foods are higher in saturated fat?
In the foods, we think of as “fats,” fat is the main macronutrient (although it also contains carbohydrates and protein). Likewise, foods that we consider to be “sources of saturated fat” have more saturated fatty acids than unsaturated ones.
Butter – Yellow Death or What?
And here is the answer to the question that tormented you.
No. Saturated fat itself is not poisonous.
A healthy diet will, of course, include some saturated fat as it is found in many healthy foods (nuts and seeds, coconut and avocado, animal sources of protein).
But still, their consumption should be controlled.
Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Cardiovascular Disease
The Mediterranean people Ansel Keys watched did really well, with their diets (vegetables, whole grains, fruits, seafood, olives, nuts, and some milk) having astoundingly low CVD levels.
But in Americans (a lot of saturated fats, meat, milk, and desserts, but few vegetables) – one of the highest in the world.
We’ve had enough time to figure it out:
- Saturated fat, when consumed in excess (more than 10% of daily calories), increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, as well as the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease in general [7, 8]. Reducing the proportion of saturated fat in the diet also leads to a decrease in the risk of CVD . However, consumption of saturated fat does not increase mortality. They have little effect on the risk of cancer, diabetes, elevated levels of HDL, triglycerides, and blood pressure .
- Trans fats, on the other hand, increase the risk of CVD and increase mortality .
- And consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is associated with a lower risk of CVD and death .
What does all this mean?
Well, this means that it is desirable:
- prefer foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, i.e., nuts and seeds, seafood, olives and olive oil, avocados,
- control the consumption of foods rich in saturated fat, e.g., fatty meats, high-fat milk, palm oil, and coconuts,
- limit or eliminate foods rich in trans fats, e.g., many processed and prepared meals, cooking oils and margarine, anything that contains hydrogenated oils.
Does Everyone Need to Cut Back on Saturated Fat?
Most people in Western countries eat quite a lot of saturated fat, so it’s worth considering (and, as far as we know, lowering the proportion of saturated fat does not seem to have any harmful effects )
But there is a nuance.
You can’t just take out saturated fat. It all depends on what you’re replacing it with.
For example, if you went through saturated fats and then replaced some of them with unsaturated ones, it will be beneficial .
However, eating refined carbohydrates instead of saturated fat increases the risk of heart attack .
And not all saturated fatty acids are equally useless: for example, stearic acid, found in beef and cocoa butter, can reduce (or not affect) LDL levels .
The effects of saturated fat on our bodies depend on many factors:
- the amount and types of other fats in the diet,
- consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fiber,
- excess calories
- frequency and intensity of training,
- the level of stress and the ability to cope with it,
But let’s focus on the most basic:
- Quantity: not too much and not too little. About 30 percent of your daily calories should come from various types of fat (saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated).
- Ratio: roughly equal proportions of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
If your diet is balanced, contains a lot of natural foods, and you don’t go overboard on calories, then you probably don’t need to worry about saturated fat.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t force yourself into saturated fats because of fashion trends (like butter coffee).
Saturated Fat Quantity in Grams
So how much to weigh in grams?
The answer, as always, is simple and clear: it depends on the circumstances.
To begin with, you can take this benchmark: the share of saturated fat should account for about 10% (or less) of the daily calorie intake .
For example, if you have a 2,000 calorie intake, then saturated fat will have about 200 calories – or 22.2 grams.
Here’s how to get them:
- 200 grams of beef = 12 grams of saturated fat
- 30 grams of cheddar cheese = 6 grams of saturated fat
- 3 large eggs = 5 grams of saturated fat = 23 grams saturated fat
- 170 grams of salmon = 5 grams of saturated fat
- 1 tablespoon of coconut oil = 12 grams of saturated fat
- 1 avocado = 4 grams of saturated fat = 21 grams saturated fat
As you can see, getting that 10% is not that difficult. And it’s easy to go overboard if you choose fatter chunks and also like to cook with palm, coconut, or butter.
However, we advise you not to dwell on numbers, instead focus on the following four points.
The Lion Health Advice
#1 – Eat different fats
A healthy dietary balance can be achieved simply by choosing a variety of natural foods with a minimum of processing as sources of fat, such as:
- nuts and seeds
- dairy products
- oily fish
- beef, pork, and lamb
- domestic bird
- olives and extra virgin olive oil
Include one or two from this list with each meal.
#2 – Try to avoid trans fats
Try to minimize or eliminate refined and processed foods that contain hydrogenated oils.
This generally happens by itself when you start eating natural foods.
#3 – Consider individual characteristics
The most important thing is to adjust your saturated fat intake according to your body type, preferences, and needs.
If, say, you have a family member with CVD, then you may be (genetically) more susceptible to the negative effects of saturated fat, so you should limit your intake.
And someone can eat more of them, for example:
- Larger, more muscular, and physically active people can eat proportionally more overall, including more saturated fat (sticking to the 10% guideline)
- If you (or your client) just need to eat dark chocolate croissants and drink coffee with cream, don’t ban them right away. Keep fats in check, knowing their effects, and have fun.
- Some people feel better when they eat a little more fat (including saturated ones). However, if saturated fat becomes the main source of calories, blood cholesterol and lipid levels should be checked regularly.
#4 – Doubt? Experiment!
Although we suggest limiting saturated fat intake to 10% of daily calories (especially if there is a family case of CVD), some people want to try higher fat diets such as keto.
Great – try it.
But behave like a real scientist: first, define the goals of the experiment, what do you want to achieve? Lose weight? Get rid of obsessive food addictions? Increase your energy levels?
Then record the following metrics:
- Weight, volumes, photos
- Energy level, sleep quality, digestion, mood (you can simply rate on a scale from 1 to 10)
- Cholesterol (HDL, LDL, total), triglycerides, fasting blood sugar (all with your doctor, of course)
- Anything else you want to track, such as cravings or satiety after eating.
Then start experimenting: Increase your fat content.
Once a week or two, “check” most of the above (repeat the blood test after about three months).
If everything seems to be going well, continue. Every few months, evaluate how you are doing in general.
Looking and Feeling Better? Do you still like avocados and coconuts? Does the doctor praise your tests? Fine!
Keep up the good work and get tested again after six months.
Feeling lousy, and your blood lipid levels jump? Okay, this isn’t for you. Cut back on fat, especially saturated fat.
In general, choose a diet that suits you (and your doctor).
Do not rush to follow fashion blindly, but listen to your own body.
This pack of butter won’t kill you. But it probably won’t make you immortal either. It’s just butter.
Photo and Idea credit – Precision Nutrition
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