The Ultimate Guide to Saturated Fat – In Plain English

butterSaturated fats have been consumed for tens of thousands of years by humans, yet they seem to have become in the last few decades (since the 1950s in particular) the evil nutrient that should be eliminated from our diets. It has been demonized to the point where people are led to believe that “butter can cause heart attacks”.

Similarly, the fact that the French have one of the lowest coronary heart disease disability in the world and eat the most saturated fat is called a paradox (the term French paradox was coined by French epidemiologists in 1981).

If you are looking for information online, you’ll see everywhere that “Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease, specifically, coronary heart disease”, but if you look at recent research, you’ll see that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD“, or that “evidence from prospective studies has not supported a strong link between total saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease events“.

So, research says there is no link, and health authorities as well as governments in Western countries tell us to consume less than 10% of daily calories as saturated fat, because there is a link.

Of course, people are confused by such contradictory information. So, let’s dive in and see what is good or bad about saturated fat.

What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fatty acids are long-chain fatty acids that usually have between 12 and 24 carbon atoms and have no double bonds. A fatty acid is saturated when all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. Saturated actually means they are saturated with hydrogen atoms.

In plain English, this means that there is no carbon bond that can be filled by another atom, therefore saturated fatty acids cannot go rancid and they are highly stable.

Saturated fatty acids include Caprylic acid, Capric acid, Lauric acid, Myristic acid, Palmitic acid, Stearic acid, Arachidic acid, Behenic acid, and Cerotic acid.

Is Saturated Fat Necessary to the Body?

The short answer to this question is Yes, it definitely is.

The longer answer is that we as humans need saturated fat for a very simple reason (and the best part is that no one can argue with this one): we are warm blooded.

We can’t function at room temperature, and our body needs to be constantly maintaining our temperature to keep us alive. This is explained very well in this course, which I quote here: “To keep the membrane fluid at physiological temperatures the cell alters the composition of the phospholipids. The right ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids keeps the membrane fluid at any temperature conducive to life.”

Additionally, saturated fats are needed for proper function of our heart, bones, lungs, liver, hormones, and immune system.

In Which Foods Are Saturated Fats to be Found?

The foods that contain the highest amount of saturated fat are coconut oil, butter, coconut milk, and most cheeses. Olive oil also contains about 15% of saturated fat.

Here are the top 30 foods rich in saturated fats (in grams per 100g):
foods high in saturated fat

Are Saturated Fats Good For Cooking?

Saturated fats are highly stable at high temperatures, and they don’t go rancid.

This is very important, because oxidation of fats means that the fats react with oxygen and other substances in the food they are heated with, and are altered. Then, their chemical reactions are also altered.

These oxidized fats are characterized by free radicals, which are extremely reactive chemically and can attack cell membranes as well as red blood cells. Consequences can be inflammation, damage in the DNA, as well as mutations in blood vessels and skin.

The best fats for cooking are the ones that contain a high amount of saturated fats: butter, duck fat, lard, and coconut oil. Olive oil is also a very good option for cooking at low to moderate temperatures.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that the people of the Gascony region, in France, are famous worldwide for their good health and their low incidence of coronary heart disease; they use almost only saturated duck fat for cooking.

Important Note: if you are largely overweight or obese, with a lot of body fat, low levels of activity, lots of stress and few plants in your diet, saturated fats may be particularly detrimental to your overall health, and it’s better to use low amounts of fat for cooking, and if any, olive oil.

Is Saturated Fat Used in Traditional Diets?

Saturated fats have been used forever in traditional diets. In fact, studies have shown that traditional people who adopt modern-day cooking oils like corn or sunflower oil show an alarming increase in the prevalence of atherosclerotic heart disease and type-2 dependent diabetes.

  • In India, traditional fats include ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil, and mustard oil.
  • In China, lard has been the preferred cooking fat for centuries.
  • In France, people cooked with butter, lard, and duck fat.
  • In Thailand, palm oil and coconut oil and milk are still widely used.
  • In Mexico, lard was also the cooking fat of choice.
  • In the United Stated, before 1900, lard and butter were always used in cooking (note that there was no heart disease and no diabetes at all at the time).

How Much Saturated Fat Can You Safely Consume? – An Evolutionary Perspective

As far as saturated fats are concerned, consumption should be between 10% and 15% of total calories consumed, which are the levels observed in native populations and that seem to have conditioned our species genome. Values lower than 10% or higher than 15% are the exception and not the rule.

Therefore, recommendations of a saturated fat consumption of less than 10% of total daily calories may have hazardous consequences for our health.

If we look at figures, Americans consume about 11% of their calories as saturated fats. The French, who have a reputation for over-consuming saturated fats, are at 15.5%, still within the range of our Paleolithic ancestors. And they have the lowest rate of cardiovascular mortality in all of Europe.

Consequently, saturated fats should not be a worry unless you are really consuming too much (more than 15% of your daily calories). This can happen quite fast, actually, so this is why you still need to pay attention to what you are eating.

How do you know? The key here is to eat enough saturated fat (remember that your body needs it – although he can still produce it from mono-unsaturated fats) but still be reasonable with bacon and eggs!

For example, if you eat 2000 calories a day, that’s 300 calories, or 33g of saturated fat at most. This would be equivalent to 3.5 oz (100g) beef ribs, 1.75 oz (50g) cheddar cheese, 1 tbsp butter, and 2 poached eggs. If you eat 7 oz (200g) beef ribs and 2 eggs, you would have your saturated fat ration for the day.

However, it’s good to note that if you are largely overweight, with a lot of body fat, low levels of activity, lots of stress and few plants in your diet, saturated fats may be particularly detrimental to your overall health. This has been shown by numerous studies and cannot be denied. If you fall into this category, make sure to reduce your saturated fat consumption.

Eating the wrong kind of fats may be preventing you from losing weight or being healthy.
 

Sources:
USDA Database – http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/
Fallon, Sally, with Mary G. Enig (2001). Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, 2nd edition.
The Lipid Handbook, 3rd edition.
Lasserre, M, et al – Lipids, 1985, 20:4:227
Profiling Food Consumption in America – US Department of Agriculture. http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf
Loren Cordain – Phytochemicals Nutrient-Gene Interaction – Chap. 8 : Saturated fat consumption in ancestral human diet – http://thepaleodiet.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/CRC-Chapter-2006a1.pdf
Oxidized fat in the diet, postprandial lipaemia and cardiovascular disease http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11790959
Choice of cooking oils–myths and realities – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10063298