Since the days when our ancestors were living in caves, gathering food and hunting wild animals, saturated fats have played a part in our diet.
In the latter half of the last century, saturated fats were reviled as one of the worst things in the world. They were thought to cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and heart disease, as well as being a contributory factor to diabetes.
Recently, the tables have turned yet again. New research has revealed many surprising health benefits.
We decided to take a look at exactly what this new research shows in order to finally answer the question “is saturated fat bad for you?”.
What is Saturated Fat?
Saturated fats are the type of fats found in meat, cheese, cream, butter, poultry skin and coconut oil. This type of fat is usually solid at room temperature.
Saturated fats are a valuable source of energy. They provide nutrients needed for the body to make many different kinds of hormones and other essential functions such as the construction of cell walls.
Now here’s the chemistry bit. All fats consist of chains of carbon with various other elements attached. Saturated fats are molecules where all the molecules of carbon have hydrogen filling all of their available bonds.
In comparison, unsaturated fats have less hydrogen attached to the carbon because some carbon is bonded to other elements twice, called a double bond.
Essentially, when it comes down to basic food chemistry, saturated fat just contains more hydrogen than unsaturated fat. (source)
Saturated Fat And Heart Disease
For years we have been led to believe that saturated fat is bad for our health because it increases the risk of heart disease. More recently, several research studies have concluded that the inclusion of saturated fat in a balanced diet does not increase the risk of heart disease.
In particular, one review involving more than a quarter of a million research subjects found that there is no evidence to say that saturated fats cause an increased risk of heart disease.
Saturated Fats and Cholesterol
Often, cholesterol is immediately thought of as having a negative effect on health.
The truth is we can’t live without cholesterol. It is an essential part of our diet – we need cholesterol to make a variety of hormones and other substances vital for good health.
The link between cholesterol and conditions such as heart disease and stroke actually comes from the molecules that transport cholesterol. These carrier molecules are called low density lipoproteins (LDL).
Modern research has identified two different types of LDLs – small and large. Small LDLs are the troublemakers due to their high density. Large LDLs – the type commonly found in saturated fat – are fluffy and low in density. According to research large LDLs are not associated with increased risk of heart disease. (source)
Another type of carrier for cholesterol is high density lipoprotein (HDL). The purpose of HDLs are to transport cholesterol out of the blood stream to the liver, where it can be either recycled or removed as a waste product.
This is probably why HDLs are known as good cholesterol. The higher the amount of HDLs, the lower the risk factor for heart disease. Consuming saturated fat has been shown to increase the amount of HDLs in the body. (source)
Saturated Fat And The Risk Of Stroke
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.
Saturated fat in the blood was thought to be a causal factor. However, research has shown that decreasing the amount of saturated fat has little effect on the risk of a stroke. Other factors, like smoking, are much more important. (source)
Saturated Fat For Bone Health
Our bones are vital for supporting the body, and to provide a stable base allowing muscles to act as levers to allow us to move.
In the structure of bones, saturated fat is essential for minerals like calcium, necessary for bone strength, to be used effectively. (source)
Saturated Fat Improves Liver Health
The liver is an amazing organ. It removes toxins and waste products and stores substances we need for the body to function normally.
Research has shown that saturated fat protects the liver from toxic materials like alcohol, and also from some medicines, like those commonly used for pain relief and conditions like arthritis. (source)
Saturated Fat Keeps Lungs Healthy
The lungs are complicated structures containing a huge amount of cells and tissues to enable us to take gases like oxygen from the air and use them in the body. For correct lung function, all parts of the lungs which come into contact with air are coated with a substance called lung surfactant.
The fatty products in lung surfactant all come from saturated fat. A deficiency of saturated fat in the diet means that lung surfactant cannot function properly, and this can contribute to breathing problems. (source)
Saturated Fat For A Healthy Brain and Nervous System
The cells and tissues in the brain are made primarily from fat and cholesterol. For brain cells function at optimal levels, and to provide the brain with the raw materials it needs, it is important to include saturated fat in your diet.
Some types of saturated fat have specific functions within the nervous system, acting as neurological messengers, and having a direct influence on metabolism. Their functions include, for example, a role in the control mechanism of the release of substances like insulin within the body. (source)
Saturated Fat For Weight Loss
There is some evidence to suggest that saturated fat plays a useful role in weight loss. Some research studies have indicated that when women undertake a weight loss program, the greatest weight loss was achieved by the people who consumed most of the fat included in their diet as saturated fat. (source)
Using Saturated Fat Versus Unsaturated Fat
There are several practical benefits of using saturated fat for cooking.
As saturated fat doesn’t have the double bonds of unsaturated fat, it is chemically more stable than unsaturated fat.
When exposed to high heat, unsaturated fats react with oxygen, and forms substances that are toxic to the body.
Because none of the bonds in saturated fat are available to react when exposed to oxygen, saturated fat is more suitable for cooking, especially at high temperatures. (source)
So, it’s clear from the evidence that saturated fat is not the monster we’ve been led to believe it was.
Saturated fat plays an essential part in numerous body functions. It has many important roles, particularly for the brain and nervous system, the liver, the lungs, for bones and the production and regulation of essential hormones. It is highly nutritious and a good source of energy.
Saturated fat is no longer thought to be the cause of disease such as heart disease and stroke – research has shown that saturated fats do not increase the risk of these conditions.
As with anything we include in our diets, the key to optimal health is balance. It is when this balance is not sustained that we can most likely experience problems with our health. We need to regularly include lots of different components from all of the different food groups to maintain health.