You have probably heard for decades that saturated fat is unhealthy and that it should be avoided at all costs because it increases cholesterol levels, which leads to heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke.
However, if you take a good look at recent studies, as well as past history, the picture suddenly becomes much more complicated than it is being presented to us.
Let's talk a little bit about the science behind what saturated fat is so that we can fully understand what it is not.
Saturated fats can be found in dairy products such as cream, cheese, butter, other whole milk and also in fatty meats.
Macronutrients are nutrients that we consume in large quantities and the things that give us energy each day. Fats are macronutrients.
Every molecule of fat is made up of one molecule of glycerol and three fatty acids. These fatty acids can be saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, or polyunsaturated fat.
When speaking of “saturated” fats, we are talking about the number of double bonds within the molecule.
This means that saturated fatty acids (saturated fats) have all of their carbon atoms completely saturated with hydrogen atoms.
This sounds like a lot of complicated chemistry stuff, and it is, but you can break it down into simpler terms by remembering that most saturated fats become solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
This explains why lard is solid at room temperature (lard is a saturated fat), and olive oil is liquid at room temperature (olive oil is an unsaturated fat).
There is no difference in calories between saturated and unsaturated fats; they all contain 9 calories per gram.
The list of foods which have saturated fats is a long one, but foods that you will recognize instantly include:
NUTS and SEEDS:
It all started with heart disease.
This used to be a rare medical condition, even though most people were farmers and ate red meat, butter, dairy, and cheese (all filled with saturated fats) most of the time.
But in the middle to later part of the 20th century, heart disease suddenly began to skyrocket and become the #1 killer. It still is.
At this same time, scientists discovered that consuming saturated fat increased levels of cholesterol in the blood. At this time, researchers knew that high cholesterol was linked to a greater risk of heart disease, but that was about all they knew.
This discovery about saturated fat led to the following hypothesis:
Since saturated fat raises cholesterol and since cholesterol causes heart disease, then saturated fat must be the cause of heart disease.
One thing many people confuse is the difference between a theory and a hypothesis.
A hypothesis is an idea that has yet to be tested and is simply an idea, if you will.
A theory is a hypothesis that has been tested and proven numerous times to be true, such as the theory of gravity or evolution.
So when scientists came to the conclusion that saturated fat causes heart disease, they merely made a hypothesis, not a proven theory. How do we know this? Because this hypothesis was not based on any studies or experimental evidence involving humans. This hypothesis was made from observational data, assumptions, and a few animal studies, not human studies.
Unfortunately, this hypothesis was quickly turned into public health policy in 1977, before it could be tested and proven true or not.
So, while we now have plenty of studies and data to show that the hypothesis is wrong, all over the world, people are being told to avoid saturated fat if they want to avoid heart disease.
Let's take a look at cholesterol, so we can better understand its link to saturated fat.
LDL is considered to be the "bad" type of cholesterol. It is made up of two parts; small or dense LDL, which are small enough particles that they easily penetrate the arterial wall and large LDL, which are, as the name implies, larger, fluffier particles which cannot easily penetrate the arteries.
Small LDL particles are much more susceptible to oxidation, which can lead to heart disease. Those who have mostly small LDL have as much as a three times greater risk of developing heart disease than those who have large LDL particles.
So while most mainstream nutrition experts are saying that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, what they are leaving out is that eating saturated fat changes the LDL particles from small to large.
This means that while saturated fat can raise LDL cholesterol slightly, it changes it to the large particle type of cholesterol, which protects us from heart disease.
Even this increase in LDL cholesterol is small. There are quite a few long term studies which have found no link between saturated fat and LDL cholesterol levels.
The bottom line here is that low carb diets (which can be high in saturated fats) actually lower LDL particles and low fat diets, contrary to what experts tell us, raise LDL particle levels. Plenty of studies back this up, such as this study, this study, and this study.
Our ancestors consumed a great deal of saturated fats and heart disease was never a problem. In fact, in some ways, our ancestors were healthier than we are today!
Eating saturated fats has benefits that cannot be denied, including:
While experts around the world are telling us to eat less fat to prevent heart disease and to live longer, but the truth is that there is really no evidence to back this up.
In one review of 21 studies, which involved a whopping 247,747 subjects, researchers found absolutely zero when it came to an association between eating saturated fat and heart disease.
Another systematic review from Cochrane collaboration, which combines the data found in a wide number of randomized controlled studies, found in their 2011 review that saturated fat has absolutely no effect on death from heart disease or any type of death.
This is interesting when you compare the results above with studies done involving low fat diets that are supposed to "save" you from heart attacks or heart disease.
The largest nutritional study in history was done by the Women's Health Initiative. This randomized controlled study involved 46,835 women who were told to consume a low fat diet for 7 years.
After 7 years, it was found that the women who ate low fat lost only 1 pound, on average, when compared to the control group, and there was ZERO difference in the rates of heart disease, death, or cancer.
Smaller studies have confirmed that there is no reduced risk of death, cancer, or prevention of heart disease by consuming a low fat diet.
There are a few people who should avoid saturated fat in their diets due to a genetic disorder. If you have a gene variant called ApoE4 or if you have Familial Hypercholesterolemia, you should avoid saturated fat. Speak to your doctor about an appropriate diet for you.
Of course, not all plant oils are unhealthy; olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil are both plant based and are excellent for your health. Coconut oil, in particular, is excellent for frying or high heat applications because it can withstand high temperatures and not break down.
There are plenty of other commonly used vegetable oils, however, that we should avoid like the plague:
You must read labels on some foods to ensure that you are not eating these types of oil in processed foods.
Restaurants, also, often post the type of oil they use in their nutritional statements or online. If you ask and they don’t know the type of oil they are using, choose another restaurant.
While you might still hear some "nutrition professionals" try to push the "vegetable oils are heart healthy and saturated fat is not" dogma, but the fact is that these kinds of statements simply aren't true and are not science based.
For the majority of people, eating saturated fats is a natural and safe diet that can actually protect you from heart disease. Foods that are naturally high in saturated fats are healthy and nutritious, as long as they are quality, unprocessed, natural foods, such as meat and dairy from grass fed cows, coconuts, and dark chocolate.
Unnatural, highly processed oils, such as corn and canola oil, should be avoided as much as humanly possible.