Saturated Fat: One of the most demonized substances in dietary and nutritional history. Is it really synonymous with heart disease, has it been wrongfully accused or is it actually an antagonist to heart disease?
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a simplistic black and white answer. If anyone states that saturated fat is bad, no questions asked and with 100% certainty you can be certain they likely need a different perspective. Similarly, someone stating that saturated fat is completely innocent or the healthiest fat, no questions asked with 100% certainty is also likely sharing a short sided perspective.
If the answer is somewhere in the middle, which is my belief, then how do we figure out where in the middle it actually lies and if it depends on the person and the rest of diet? As is almost always the case, by taking a step back and reassessing the subject we can get a better perspective on how we might answer this question…
Rethinking Saturated Fat
First some basics…
What is Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat is more appropriately a family name for a group of related fats that all share a base chemical structure. A saturated fat is any fat that doesn’t have a double carbon bond. Its carbon molecules are filled or “saturated” with hydrogen atoms:
That’s the basic difference. The saturated fat seen is stearic acid (found in things like beef and dark chocolate). The unsaturated fat seen is monounsaturated oleic acid (found in olive oil and bacon).
What is also important to note is that there’s no difference between plant vs. animal source. A saturated fatty acid like lauric acid is the same whether it’s from coconut oil or human breast milk, just as stearic acid is the same whether it’s from beef or chocolate. There are different kinds of saturated fats/fatty acids but the source/origin makes no difference, just like in the unsaturated fat family where oleic acid is the same whether you get it from olive oil or bacon.
Kinds of Saturated Fats
There are several types of saturated fat, similar to siblings in a family. They range in size, from small to large, but all share the same chemical structure, just like brothers of different heights.
And the longer chained stearic acid seen above, along with even much longer versions. There are many different saturated fats found in nature ranging from 3 carbons to 36 carbons, that are almost identical with the exception of their length. For much more detailed coverage on saturated fat, including more discussion on differences between saturated and unsaturated fat, check out Living Off The Fat Of The Land.
Where Is Saturated Fat Found?
The family of saturated fats exists throughout the natural world in all sorts of combinations and ratios in both plants and animals. As mentioned before saturated fats are not specific to animal sources nor are the different fatty acids dependent on the source.
In general, saturated fats are found most commonly in meat, eggs, dairy, chocolate, nuts and tropical oils. None of these are completely saturated fat and most, particularly animal meat, eggs and milk, although considered saturated fat foods, actually contain a balance of saturated fats and unsaturated fats.
As an example, beef fat is made up of approximately 35-45% saturated fats, 45-50% monounsaturated fats and 5-10% polyunsaturated fats. That means there’s more unsaturated fat in beef than saturated, which is something to keep in mind that very rarely gets mentioned. Most “sources” of saturated fat have similar, more balanced breakdowns, even butter which is often thought of as pure saturated fat. In fact, the most heavily saturated fat we eat is the magical coconut oil, coming in at about 85% saturated fat. Here’s a chart breaking down common foods and their fat percentages:
You’ll see how much intricacy is involved here. Saturated fat isn’t a simple subject- it’s actually quite complex and has been completely misrepresented, particularly to the general public. These details, however, probably aren’t really why you’re reading this but I thank you for hanging in there with me. This brings us to the questions about the healthfulness of these saturated fats…
Is Saturated Fat bad?
Since there are so many different types of saturated fat, we need to reframe the question “are all saturated fats bad?” or is it “are just some types of saturated fat bad?”
If we say all saturated fats are bad then we are saying that a naturally occurring fat that has existed longer than we have and is revered across the world by traditional cultures, is now somehow bad for us. This is hard to believe just on the surface and would need some very good explanation as to how this is possible.
If we say that just some saturated fats are bad then we need to explain why this is the case and how it is works. It needs to be explained how a fat can be good for us if it has 16 carbons but bad for us if it has 18 or 10. That has yet to be done as far as I can tell.
One of the popular recommendations now is that saturated fat is ok or healthy if from a plant source (i.e. coconut) but bad for us if from an animal. Hopefully this line of reasoning has already shown its shortcomings.
Based off this train of thought, using some common sense, it makes it hard to believe that we should condemn saturated fat, since it’s never been explained why it’s actually bad for us and how it’s never been a problem for humans until the last 30-40 years.
Decades of Research?
Some of the saturated fat skeptics might be thinking: but what about the decades of research and thousands of studies looking at this issue that have conclusively found that saturated fat is bad for us?
Without getting too long winded, the simplest answer is that a few things contributed to the formation and perpetuation of this belief.
1- many of the original studies looking at saturated fat did so with hydrogenated saturated fat, not regular fat, which is a big difference.
2- much of the clinical research was done with animals and rats, most of which are naturally low fat eaters and/or herbivores and often included supranormal feedings of fat.
3- most of the human research has been based on dietary questionnaires, which are terribly inaccurate and at best can find correlation, not causation. When you ask people to report what they ate in the last 5 years or when pepperoni pizza is considered a saturated fat, you can get some massive misinterpretation of your population data.
4- once dogma is set, and particularly if it becomes government guidelines, two things occur: one; bias creeps in to research and two; it becomes very difficult to challenge the status quo and be heard or taken seriously.
5- once commercial interests get involved, especially the food and drug industries, everything gets murky and distorted.
There have been people arguing against the demonization of saturated fat for a long time, even presenting research or analysis to prove the lack of connection between saturated fat and heart disease but it hasn’t been until the last few years that their voices have been able to break through. The biggest recent challenge was a review of literature in 2010 by Krauss and colleagues that found no evidence of the link between saturated fat and heart disease…
Conclusions: A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.
This spurred more people to look at the issue again and very quickly it was realized that the original conclusion(s) may have been wrong. It has even been enough to get Time magazine to retract their stance from 30 years ago and publish a cover story along with several related articles and videos that concluded: Ending The War on Fat. Not everyone agrees with the reversal on this and most medical and nutritional guidelines still reflect the standard advice but things are changing, usually taking a form similar to the conclusion of this paper, another review and meta-analysis, which concluded:
Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.
The basic conclusion we can take from all this is that some people really still believe in the research that has been done, defend it and think we need to listen to the standard recommendations of limiting saturated fat. Some people are completely the opposite and embrace saturated fat of all kinds, claiming it to be the healthiest fat you can eat. The quickly growing group (soon the majority) is the people rethinking their philosophy and either forgiving saturated fat of most wrong doing or putting it on a probation of sorts, meaning they will allow it back into the diet and see how all this shakes out or the ones who think saturated fat is ok if from a plant source.
My belief is that no fat, just like anything else in nutrition, is inherently bad. Diet and life is too complex and multifaceted to think that something is bad for everyone (including trans fats and high fructose corn syrup). It does appear that there’s tremendous variance in each of us and subsequently different dietary substances will likely impact us differently.
I think there’s a lot we still don’t understand about nutrition, fats in particular. Most likely all the different fats have both beneficial compounds for us as well as the potential to be overeaten or problematic. They are probably only problematic when other factors are in play, such as overeating in general, stress and inflammation, eating too much sugar/carbohydrates, not enough exercise, seasonal variances, a few genetic predispositions and on and on. What if saturated fat is only a problem if you have a rare genetic variance, are under slept, over stressed and have made yourself diabetic through years of poor diet and lifestyle? And what if any fat would be problematic under those conditions? Even the almighty olive oil?
If this is the case, is the fat to blame or is it the other factors? This is a question we don’t have an answer to and I don’t think we will anytime soon.
I’ve tackled this issue from a traditional perspective in Fats: Old & New and my basic perspective is that the longer a fat has been around and the more natural it is the better I feel eating it. The newer and more artificial the fat, the less comfortable I feel with it. Ultimately I think the rest of your lifestyle and diet determines how things impact you. Healthy people can get away with most anything while unhealthy people are more likely to have problems with everything they eat.
Saturated fat is no different. It’s simply a family of fats that exist in the natural world. Fearing it is unnecessary. It may have been found guilty for years but I think it’s recently been put up for parole and is hopeful for release, even if that means a little probation. Personally, I think it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got blamed for hanging out with the wrong people.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. The claim that saturated fat raises cholesterol is a non issue. I argued it so many times it’s not even worth going over again. 🙂