In one of my previous articles I discussed the four types of dietary fat. One of the main conclusions from that article was that saturated fat may not actually be as bad for you as many people believe. In fact recent research suggests it could actually be quite healthy. Today I am going to explore this topic in more detail and take an in depth look at saturated fat.
WHAT IS SATURATED FAT?
All fats are made from combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The type of chemical bond between these carbon and hydrogen atoms determines the type of fat. Saturated fats (also known as saturated fatty acids or SAFAs) are those where all the carbon atoms are bonded to hydrogen atoms and there are no double bonds between carbon atoms. So in other words the carbon atoms are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fats have the highest melting point of all the natural fats and are solid at room temperature. There are many different types which each have varying levels of carbon atoms. Propionic acid has the lowest number of carbon atoms (containing just 3) whilst hexatriacontanoic acid has the largest number of carbon atoms (containing 36). Other saturated fats include lauric acid which contains 12 carbon atoms, myristic acid which contains which contains 14 carbon atoms, palmitic acid which contains 16 carbon atoms and stearic acid which contains 18 carbon atoms.
WHICH FOODS CONTAIN SATURATED FAT?
Saturated fat is found mainly in animal products. Although no food contains purely saturated fat some of the following examples are high in it:
– Dairy products such as butter, cheese and eggs.
– Oils such as cocoa butter, coconut oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil and palm oil.
– Red meats such as beef, lamb and pork.
IS SATURATED FAT HEALTHY?
A lot of sources paint saturated fat in a bad light. Doctors, health organisations and the media all say that we should try to eat less saturated fat and instead get our fats from unsaturated sources. The theory is that saturated fats increases both HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels. LDL cholesterol builds up in your artery walls, clogs them up and restricts the flow of blood through them. This can then lead to organ damage, high blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease. HDL cholesterol is much more beneficial to your health and helps remove LDL cholesterol from your body. However, since saturated fat increases your overall cholesterol levels it is often linked with an increased heart disease risk and therefore moderate consumption is advised.
The above theory is based on a 1950’s research study from Ancel Keys which proposed that there was a direct relationship between saturated fat in the diet and heart disease risk. Closer inspection of Ancel’s study reveals that it has a number of flaws. First, it only looked at a small sample of countries. Secondly, it did not consider the effect any other negative lifestyle factors could have on heart disease.
Despite these flaws Ancel’s research received a huge amount of publicity from vegetable oil producers. Around this time they had developed hydrogenated trans fats which allowed their products to be stabilised during long journeys. These hydrogenated trans fats could also be solidified and promoted as alternatives to butter and lard. Ancel’s research was a perfect marketing tool for these products and this led to the vegetable oil companies funding further flawed research which linked saturated fat consumption to heart disease.
As a result of this negative press people started to change their dietary habits. Instead of consuming saturated fats they started to consume hydrogenated trans fats such as margarine and vegetable oil which were marketed to the public as a healthy alternative. However, shortly after this change in dietary habits rates of cancer and heart disease (health conditions that were extremely rare before the 1940s) started to rise rapidly. Saturated fats continued to be blamed for this relatively recent increase in cancer and heart disease despite the fact that people have eaten them for thousands of years but only started to eat hydrogenated trans fats since the 1930s (around the same time that cancer and heart disease started to become more prevalent).
More recently research has come to the defence of saturated fat and actually revealed that it has a number of benefits.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SATURATED FAT?
1) REDUCED RISK OF HEART DISEASE:- As discussed above consumption of saturated fat is often associated with an increased risk of heart disease. However, it may actually have the opposite effect. Eating saturated fats lowers blood levels of lipoprotein (a), a substance that is linked with heart disease.
2) STRONG CELL WALLS:- 50% of your cell walls are made from saturated fats. They give your cells walls structure and offer protection from unwanted outside materials.
3) STRONG BONES:- Consuming saturated fat is essential for the proper absorption of calcium by the bones. Some sources recommend as much as 50% of your dietary fat intake should come from saturated sources so effectively absorb calcium.
4) STRONG IMMUNE SYSTEM:- Myristic acid and lauric acid (two types of saturated fat found in butter and coconut oil) can both help keep your immune system strong. Without sufficient supplies of these two saturated fatty acids your white blood cells struggle to identify and fight bacteria, fungi and viruses.
5) ABSORPTION OF ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS:- Elongated omega 3 fatty acids are absorbed and retained in your body’s tissues more easily when your diet is rich in saturated fats.
6) HELPING YOUR HEART DEAL WITH STRESS:- When handling stress your heart uses the saturated fats palmitic acid and stearic acid.
7) IMPROVED LIVER HEALTH:- Saturated fats protect your liver from alcohol and toxic medications. They have even been shown to reverse liver damage after it has occurred. Saturated fats also help clear fat from the liver which helps it perform more effectively.
8) IMPROVED LUNG HEALTH:- To function optimally the airspaces of the lungs need to be covered in a substance called lung surfactant that is comprised entirely of saturated fats. Not eating enough saturated fat can lead to the production of faulty lung surfactant which ultimately causes lung damage and breathing disorders.
9) IMPROVED BRAIN HEALTH:- Your brain is made largely from fat and cholesterol and about half of this fat is saturated. Failure to consume enough saturated fats can prevent your brain from functioning optimally.
10) PROPER FUNCTIONING OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM:- Certain saturated fats act as messengers in your body. They assist with vital functions such as digestion and the release of insulin. Not eating enough saturated fats means that these messages do not get transmitted and these vital functions do not get performed properly.
SATURATED FAT SUMMARY
As you can see saturated fat is not as bad as we are often led to believe. In fact consuming the right levels can be very beneficial to your body. That does not mean you should go out and eat a block of butter or eat as many beef burgers as you can manage. However, it does mean that you should make saturated fat part of your diet. If you want to have some butter with your food go for it and when selecting your meats make sure you have a mixture of red and white. All these foods are essential for good health and should be included as part of a well balanced diet.
Now I want to hear from you guys. What is your opinion on saturated fats? Has this article changed your outlook? Do you disagree with it? Let me know by commenting on this blog post.
7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat (4 Hour Work Week Blog)
Foods High in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol (Discovery Health)
Is Saturated Fat Bad For You (Truth About Six Pack Abs)
Saturated Fat (Wikipedia)
Saturated Fats. The Cause of Heart Disease or the Answer to the Problem? (Natural Health Information Center)
The Benefits of Saturated Fats (Article Base)
The Truth About Saturated Fats (Health Report)