If you’ve been referring to saturated fat as “bad fat” for your entire life, you have Ancel Keys to thank. In the 1950s, this American scientist started looking at the relationship between fat intake, heart disease, and cholesterol, and blamed saturated fats for such ailments.
And so began the fat-phobia that has caused hundreds of fat-free products to adorn the shelves at our grocery stores. Even today, the American Heart Association advises that no more than 5% of our daily calories should come from saturated fats.
But what if scientists were wrong all along?
Psst… What’s Saturated Fat Again?
Saturated fats are found in animal proteins (beef, pork, chicken, etc.), dairy products (whole milk, butter, and cheese) coconut oil, and palm oil. Basically anything solid at room temperature is considered a saturated fat. Despite their bad reputation, saturated fats are actually essential for proper bodily functioning, influencing gene expression, helping to regulate hormones, and forming the building blocks of cell membranes.
While saturated fats have been seen as one entity for decades, there are actually three types of saturated fats: short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain saturated fatty acids.
A Little Chemistry Talk…
Short-chain fatty acids have a short chain of carbon atoms (4 - 6), medium-chain fatty acids have a medium chain of carbon atoms (8 - 12), and long-chain fatty acids have a long chain of carbon atoms(14 - 18 carbon atoms)*. What they all have in common is that their carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms (hence the name saturated fat).
Who cares? Well, the length of a saturated fatty acid matters because it determines how the fat reacts in our body. Think of it this way: if you took a shot of vodka from a small shot glass, it would have a very different effect on your body than if you took a shot of vodka from a huge shot glass. Same raw materials, different result. It’s the same with saturated fats.
How Saturated Fats Work in Our Bodies
SHORT-CHAIN: protect against intestinal inflammation and help feed our gut’s good bacteria, according to the academic journal Clinical Lipidology. A product of fibre fermentation, short-chain saturated fatty acids are also found in foods like vinegar and butter.
MEDIUM-CHAIN: found in coconut oil and palm oil. Isn’t stored as fat the same way as the long-chain saturated fats and increases your resting metabolic rate, according to Clinical Lipidology (yahoo!). Also more readily absorbed, has a laxative effect, and assists with weight loss.
LONG-CHAIN: mainly found in meat products and dairy fats. TheAmerican Society for Clinical Nutrition concluded that this type of fat led to a small increase in risk of coronary heart disease. (Although the study was done in 1999, it included more than 80,000 participants and was done over a 14-year period, a.k.a. its results are pretty legit.)
As you can see above, saturated fats are actually associated with good bodily reactions much of the time!
A Key Part of the Puzzle
Once people started drastically cutting saturated fat from their diet, they needed to replace those calories with something else. And what did they turn to? Carbs and sugar.
Over-consumption of refined carbs increases blood glucose concentrations, which stimulates insulin release and promotes the growth of fat tissue (a.k.a. weight gain). It’s also associated with an increase one’s risk of cardiovascular diseases, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Conversely, people who swapped saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats and good carbohydrates majorly decreased their risk of coronary heart disease. The key message here is that saying saturated fats have caused cardiovascular disease is just plain wrong.
There’s More to the Story
People often see saturated fats as problematic because they “cause heart disease.” While saturated fat may indeed increase “bad cholesterol” levels to an extent, it’s inaccurate and misleading to say that this fat causes heart disease. Factors like high blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidation ALL need to be considered and improved when figuring out how to reduce risks of heart disease. Additionally, new research has shown that saturated fats don’t increase the number of LDL particles; they just make them bigger, which isn’t associated with increasing cardiovascular disease risks. Meanwhile, saturated fat also raises “good” cholesterol (HDL).
Research backs this up: Drugs that lower cholesterol only don’t seem to prevent cardiovascular deaths. On the flip side, drugs that drop LDL while also decreasing inflammation, benefitting vessel walls, and improving vitamin metabolism have been shown to save lives. Once again, LDL cholesterol is just one piece of a complex puzzle.
A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that looked at 76 study results of more than 600,000 people also concluded that saturated fat doesn’t increase heart disease risk.
Something else to keep in mind is that a lot of saturated fats are typically found in processed foods that are also high in sugar, fat, calories, trans fats, salt, etc. Could it be, then, that saturated fat is taking the blame for a bunch of bad guys that are affecting our bodies? Research points towards yes.
The Bottom Line
Add a wider variety of saturated fats to your diet instead of just turning to meat and dairy products. Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids like coconut oil can easily be incorporated into the diet and are super delicious.
Saturated fats might not be linked to heart disease, strokes, or diabetes like we once thought**, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best option when it comes to promoting good health. Polyunsaturated fats are still the winner there, so add more of this to your diet like salmon, herring, trout, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Get over your fat phobia! A lot of problems come from refined carbohydrates, sugar, and poor quality fats found in fried foods.
Don’t forget that all types of fat are still very calorie dense. Like anything, overeating fat will lead to weight gain if the calories you eat exceed the calories you burn.
ALL researchers still agree that trans fats are the worst. Avoid these at all costs.
Eat high quality foods. If you’re eating real food with minimal ingredients, your health is going to improve dramatically. So don’t go melting cheese over processed Ritz crackers just because saturated fats aren't as scary as we once though. Pair some high quality cheese with an apple. Put some butter on the pan before you make yourself a delicious omelette with whole eggs and vegetables. Eat real, whole foods and you’ll see improvements in many ways.
You Tell Me!
Did this information surprise you? How do you feel knowing that saturated fats might not be so bad after all? Let me know in the comments below!
* FYI: People still debate on the number of carbon atoms in the different chain lengths.
** See this study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal)