We often hear that saturated fat is unhealthy and that it may increase the risk of heart disease. However, not everyone agrees with this.
For decades, researchers have said that saturated fat in a person’s diet can cause potential harm. Recommendations have typically pointed to a “low fat” diet as the best way to reduce the risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).
However, other researchers now argue that saturated fats may not be as inherently harmful and can be included as part of a health-promoting diet. There’s also an emphasis on replacing saturated fats with unsaturated versions for better heart health.
At the same time, while consumers steered away from dietary fats, there was also an uptick in CVD and obesity over the last 40 years. It’s thought that a movement toward processed foods — and less whole, nutritious versions — is to blame for such health outcomes.
Based on decades of conflicting advice, you may rightly be confused. Here, we explain what saturated fat is and recap the latest findings in nutrition research to shed light on this topic.
What is saturated fat, and why has it gotten a bad reputation?
Along with carbohydrates and protein, fat is an important macronutrient essential in many aspects of human health.
Types of fat
There are three main categories: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. All fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules.
Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules and contain only single bonds between carbon molecules. On the other hand, unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between carbon molecules.
This saturation of hydrogen molecules results in saturated fats being solid at room temperature, unlike unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, which tend to be liquid at room temperature.
Keep in mind that different types of saturated fats depend on their carbon chain length, including short-, long-, medium-, and very long-chain fatty acids — all of which have different effects on health.
What foods contain saturated fat?
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products and tropical oils. These include:
- meats such as pork, beef, lamb, and poultry
- coconut and palm oil
The controversy over saturated fat
Healthcare professionals and researchers often refer to saturated fats as “bad” fats and group them with trans fats — a type of fat known to cause health issues — even though evidence on the health effects of saturated fat intake is far from conclusive.
For decades, health organizations around the world have recommended keeping saturated fat intake to a minimum and replacing it with nutrient-dense food options to help decrease heart disease risk and promote overall health.
Despite these recommendations, heart disease rates have steadily risen, as have obesity and related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Instead of blaming saturated fats, some experts believe eating too many simple, carb-rich, processed foods may have played a role.
Several studies, including extensive reviews, contradict the recommendations to avoid saturated fat and instead consume polyunsaturated fats. Such fats are prevalent in vegetable oils, such as soybean and sunflower. However, such guidance has understandably led to consumer confusion.
Summary: Saturated fats are found in animal products and tropical oils. Whether these fats increase disease risk has long been controversial, with more recent study results showing that ultra-processed, carb-rich, and sugary foods may pose more risks.
The effect of saturated fat on health
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that only 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fats.
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One of the main reasons for recommending that saturated fat intake be kept to a minimum is that saturated fat consumption may increase certain heart disease risk factors, including LDL (bad) cholesterol.
However, this subject does not have clear-cut answers and guidance. Although saturated fat may increase certain heart disease risk factors, there’s no conclusive evidence that saturated fat alone is to blame.
Impact on heart health
Studies have shown that saturated fat increases heart disease risk factors, including LDL (bad) cholesterol and apolipoprotein B (ApoB). LDL transports cholesterol in the body. The greater the number of LDL particles, the greater the risk of heart disease.
ApoB is a protein and a central component of LDL. It’s considered a strong predictor of heart disease risk.
Saturated fat intake has been shown to increase both of these risk factors and the LDL (bad) to HDL (good) ratio, which is another heart disease risk factor.
HDL is heart-protective. Low levels of this beneficial cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cardiovascular complications. However, research has also shown that polyunsaturated fats could potentially decrease the protective effects of HDL on your heart.
However, this conclusion is not definitive. Other research has shown no significant association between consuming saturated fat and mortality from cardiovascular disease or any other cause. Researchers found an increased risk of death from high carbohydrate diets instead.
Other concerns over saturated fat intake
Although its effect on heart disease is the most researched and contested, an abundance of saturated fat has also been associated with other adverse health effects, such as increased inflammation, cancers, and mental decline.
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For example, a study of 12 women found that compared with a diet high in unsaturated fat from hazelnut oil, a diet high in saturated fat from a blend of 89 percent palm oil increased the pro-inflammatory proteins interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) and interleukin-6 (IL-6).
Some evidence suggests that saturated fats encourage inflammation partly by mimicking the actions of bacterial toxins called lipopolysaccharides, which have vital immunostimulant behaviors and can induce inflammation.
However, research in this area is also far from conclusive. A 2017 review of randomized controlled trials involving people with obesity found no significant associations between saturated fat and inflammation.
Additionally, some studies have demonstrated that saturated fat may adversely affect mental function, appetite, and metabolism.
Yet, human research in these areas is inconsistent, with some research showing fat as a satiating macronutrient. There’s also concern that decreased mental function may be linked to processed foods and not necessarily saturated fats alone.
More studies are necessary to investigate these potential links before making solid conclusions.
Summary: Although saturated fat intake may increase heart disease risk factors, research has not shown a significant link between it and heart disease. Some studies indicate that it may negatively affect other health aspects, but more research is needed.
Is saturated fat unhealthy?
Although research indicates that consuming some types of food high in saturated fat may adversely affect health, it’s essential to remember that not all saturated fats are created equal.
For example, a diet high in saturated fats from fast food, fried products, sugary baked goods, and processed meats is likely to affect health differently than a diet high in saturated fats in the form of full-fat dairy, grass-fed meat, and coconut.
Another problem lies in focusing solely on macronutrients and not the diet as a whole. Whether saturated fat increases disease risk likely depends on what foods it’s being replaced with — or what it’s replacing — and overall diet quality.
Many experts argue that one macronutrient can’t be blamed for disease progression and that diet as a whole is what matters — especially one that is rich in whole grains and plant-based foods while limited in processed versions.
What’s more, focusing exclusively on individual macronutrients rather than the diet as a whole does not consider the effects of dietary constituents, such as added sugars, that may negatively affect health.
In other words, individual nutrients are not to blame for disease progression. Humans do not consume just fat or just carbs. Instead, these macronutrients are combined through consuming foods that contain a mixture of macronutrients.
Should you exclude saturated fat?
Research supports the AHA’s advice to not focus on one “bad” food but on your overall diet instead.
For example, a 2016 review investigated the potential effects of butter on heart health and diabetes and found no clear association. It wasn’t clear whether increasing or decreasing butter consumption would change such outcomes.
Another 2017 study on specific food items looked at the possible effects of butter, olive oil, and coconut oil in healthy adults ages 50 to 75 years old. While researchers found significant changes in LDL and HDL levels among participants who ate either 50 grams of olive oil, coconut oil, or unsalted butter for 4 weeks, they could not conclude whether reducing saturated fats could improve health.
What’s more, findings from randomized controlled studies show that the general recommendation to replace saturated fats with omega-6-rich polyunsaturated fats is unlikely to decrease the risk of heart disease.
However, there have been conflicting findings, which can be attributed to the highly complex nature of this topic and the design and methodological flaws of currently available research, highlighting the need for future well-designed studies investigating this topic.
It’s important to remember that there are many types of saturated fat, each with its own effects on health. Most studies investigating the effects of saturated fat on disease risk discuss saturated fats in general, which is also problematic because this does not consider other macronutrient consumption and lifestyle.
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Lifestyle and genetic variants are important risk factors that should be considered, as both have been proven to affect overall health, dietary needs, and disease risk.
Summary: Individual macronutrients are not responsible for disease progression. Instead, it’s your diet as a whole that truly matters. It may be advisable to focus on eating a generally nutrient-rich and balanced diet instead of focusing on the exclusion of “bad” foods.
Saturated fat as part of a healthy diet
There’s no question that foods high in saturated fat can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet.
Coconut products, including unsweetened coconut flakes and coconut oil, grass-fed whole milk yogurt, and grass-fed meat, are some highly nutritious foods concentrated in saturated fat that may positively affect health.
For example, research reviews have shown that full-fat dairy intake has a neutral or protective effect on heart disease risk, while coconut oil intake has been shown to boost HDL (good) cholesterol and may benefit weight loss. However, more extensive human trials are necessary to confirm the claimed benefits of coconut oil.
On the other hand, consuming processed foods rich in saturated fats, including fast food and fried foods, has been consistently linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and numerous other health conditions.
Replacing foods with saturated fats with a high-carb diet has also been proven to inadvertently increase heart disease risk. At the same time, researchers note that the long-term effects of following a low-carb, high-fat diet are not currently known.
Research has also associated dietary patterns rich in unprocessed, plant-based foods with protection from various conditions, including obesity and heart disease, and reduction of disease risk factors, regardless of dietary macronutrient composition.
What has been established through decades of research is that a health-promoting, disease-protective diet should be rich in nutritious, whole foods, exceptionally high-fiber plant foods. However, it’s clear that nutritious foods high in saturated fat can be included as well.
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Remember, regardless of what dietary pattern you choose, the most important thing is balance and optimization — not omission.
Summary: A healthy diet should be rich in whole, nutritious foods, regardless of macronutrient composition. Saturated fats can be included as part of a healthy diet.
Saturated fats have been viewed as unhealthy for decades. Yet, current research supports that nutritious, high-fat foods can be included as part of a health-promoting, well-rounded diet.
Although nutrition research focuses on individual macronutrients, it’s far more helpful to focus on your diet as a whole regarding overall health and disease prevention. Rather than focusing on a low-fat or high-fat diet, it’s best to ensure you get enough of all the significant macronutrients from your daily diet.
Future well-designed studies must fully understand the complex relationship between individual macronutrients and overall health, including saturated fat.
However, what is known is that following a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods is most important for health, regardless of the dietary pattern you choose to follow.
If you are concerned about getting the right balance of macronutrients for your health, talk with a doctor or dietitian for advice.