If you follow diet and nutrition news, you may have caught wind that saturated fat has gotten an unwarranted bad wrap. But is saturated fat bad for you? The short science-based answer: no.
I’ve been on the front lines of the saturated fat advocacy movement.
Simply put: you must eat saturated fat to feel healthy, energetic, nourished, satiated, reach and maintain your ideal weight, and prevent disease.
“But isn’t saturated fat scary-dangerous?” you inquire.
Hardly! Hardcore science tells us saturated fat is super-healthy (more on this soon). Plus, foods high in saturated fat are super-tasty and satiating.
Saturated fat should be an integral part of your daily diet.
Read on to learn 6 (delicious) reasons you MUST eat more saturated fat for optimal health and weight loss.
Rigorous Research Doesn’t Actually Support a Low Saturated Fat Diet
What really drives the nail in the coffin of the anti-saturated-fat movement are statements like these, from an impressively comprehensive 2004 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, about how we really don’t know all the bad things we may be doing to our health by strictly limiting saturated fats:
“To date, no lower safe limit of specific saturated fatty acid intakes has been identified.”
“No randomized clinical trials of low-fat diets or low-saturated fat diets of sufficient duration have been carried out; thus, there is a lack of knowledge of how low saturated fat intake can be without the risk of potentially deleterious health outcomes.”
Simply put, all these anti-saturated fat public health recommendations we’re being fed aren’t the result of rigorous research. How bogus is that?
If Saturated Fat is So Healthy, Why Aren’t We All Eating More of It?
The fear of saturated fat is rooted in bandwagon nutrition hype and misinformation. All ideology, not solid science.
It’s pretty much common knowledge that we have to change the way we eat if we want to transform our health.
But less often do we realize or regard as urgent that, in order to change the way we eat, we have to change the way we think.
The way I see it, the foundation of health isn’t any particular food, or food-part (like saturated fat, as awesome as it may be).
The foundation of health is curiosity, self-awareness, a willingness to explore, experiment, and discover surprising new things.
This foundation is necessary so we can open up to solid science that turns on its head misinformation we’ve been fed about one of the tabooest of food-taboos: saturated fat.
Before you continue reading, I want you to take a moment to open up to unexpected possibilities that will rock your world in delicious and nutritious ways.
Take a deep breath.
What Is Saturated Fat? The Simple Answer
For decades, the word “saturated” has come to be regarded as this evil thing when used to describe fat.
In truth—based on science—all it means is the fat is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms, the way a towel gets saturated with water. This isn’t a bad thing. Not at all.
Why are all those hydrogen atoms necessary?
For one thing, hydrogen-rich saturated fats provide the rigidity necessary for cell membranes—a good thing. Since unsaturated fats provide flexibility to cell membranes, saturated fats help strike a vital balance.
An easy way to remember this is that butter is solid at room temperature and (most) oils are liquid (read: rigid vs. flexible). (Granted, saturated-fat-rich coconut and palm “oils” are solid at room temperature too, though we still call them “oils.”)
So what are some of the flat-out amazing things saturated fat does? Read on!
1) Saturated fat lowers disease risk.
A major study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 found dairy foods, which are largely composed of saturated fats, were associated with lower risk of heart attacks. In women, the risk decreased a whopping 26% (a 26% difference is huge in clinical studies). Fermented milk (i.e. yogurt and kefir) and cheese also produced similar results.
To boot, the same study indicated that consumption of full-fat dairy may lower chances of metabolic syndrome as well (metabolic syndrome is the name for multiple disease factors that increase the chances of coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes).
Another compelling study published in The Lancet found arterial plaque (the accumulation of which can lead to heart disease) is not associated with saturated fat, but unsaturated varieties of fat (unsaturated=polyunsaturated fat, as is largely found in plant oils; and monounsaturated fat, as is largely found in the likes of avocados, almonds, olive oil, etc.).
Why would saturated fat not accumulate as arterial plaque? Because it’s—gasp—an antioxidant! (Sit tight. I’ll dish about this in #2 coming up.)
The real kicker is the meta-analysis (read: the mothership of peer-reviewed research) that examined 21 studies of almost 350,000 people over 23 years (talk about hardcore research!). This meta-analysis found “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of [coronary heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.]”
In addition, saturated fat may actually be protective against breast cancer. A 2011 study found the risk of breast cancer was lowest in women who ate the most saturated fat, while it was highest in those who ate the most carbohydrates.
What’s more, saturated fat exhibits anti-tumor properties. Saturated fat comes with CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) in foods like beef, whole eggs, and whole milk (with the highest CLA-levels in pastured/grass-fed varieties of these foods). Even the National Academy of Sciences considers CLAs as the only natural fatty acids that demonstrate consistent antitumor properties at very low levels. (FYI: research has shown CLA in supplements doesn’t do the same things as CLA in food, so don’t go there!)
Lastly, saturated fat helps prevent and fight infection. Fat-soluble vitamins A and D help the immune system, but require fat to be absorbed by our bodies; they are found as complete packages in tasty foods like pasture butter. In addition, research indicates vitamins A, D and E are all involved in regulating immunity through the action of cytokines (kinds of proteins that modulate immunity and inflammation). Further research suggests lauric acid, a kind of saturated fat found in coconut oil, is antimicrobial, so it fights off all kinds of pathogens (unfriendly bacteria, viruses and fungi).
2) It’s a health-promoting antioxidant (that’s right!)
Remember all those hydrogen atoms that make saturated fat “saturated” fat? One of the super-important things all those hydrogen atoms do is stop fats from oxidizing (AKA go rancid, a process that produces cancer-causing free radicals) by providing stability when exposed to oxygen, light and heat.
You know how largely-saturated-fat coconut oil is from the tropics? Well, it just so happens the tropics get pretty hot, and any fat would go rancid in that kind of weather if it wasn’t stabilized with saturated fat.
Ever wonder why nuts and seeds (which are usually higher in unsaturated fats) have a little saturated fat? To help prevent them from going rancid! (Granted, some nuts and seeds go rancid pretty quickly—but imagine how much quicker they would go rancid without saturated fat.)
Basically, saturated fats don’t oxidize the way unsaturated fats do. Yes, even “healthy” unsaturated fats like flax and chia (seeds and especially oils) are highly prone to oxidation/rancidity, a fact that calls into question their general “healthy” status, or at least how “healthy” they can be when consumed in large amounts.
When you eat oxidized fats, or fats that can become oxidized in your body, your body has to waste antioxidants to neutralize them, or risk injuring your cells.
For this reason, it is highly protective to eat more saturated fat (from meat, eggs, dairy, coconut and palm oils) than polyunsaturated fat from plant sources and processed vegetable oils.
You should still enjoy monounsaturated fats (largely found in the likes of extra virgin olive oil, avocados, almonds, pecans and macadamia nuts), but these findings indicate the majority of fat in an ideal diet should be saturated fat. Mmhmm, das right.
Make no mistake: all fats are necessary, but we don’t need as much of some as we do of others. We need less unsaturated fats. We need more saturated fat.
As I repeat like a broken record in my book: the most stable fat is saturated fat. Then comes monounsaturated fat (MUFA). Then polyunsaturated fat (PUFA).
This is why my approach is BRING ON THE SATURATED FAT—AND LOTS OF IT!
Saturated fat’s antioxidant properties also make it our smartest choice for healthy cooking oils. If you’re going to expose fat to heat, especially high heat, you don’t want to make the mistake of cooking with fragile, unstable unsaturated fat!
3) Is a powerhouse source of energy
Saturated fat is an amazing source of energy. Energy is commonly measured in calories. In contrast to carbohydrates and protein’s 4 calories per gram, most varieties of saturated fat pack 9 calories per gram. Score!
Research suggests medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCTs), like those found in coconut oil, are quickly broken down and mainly used for energy, rarely winding up as body fat.
Long-chain saturated fatty acids (the kinds in meat) are the heart’s preferred nutrients (the fat around the heart is saturated fat, and research shows the heart resorts to using up its stores when we get stressed). How do we keep our hearts beating? Saturated fat!
And don’t go thinking more calories (a la 9 calories per gram) means weight-gain—not when those calories come from saturated fat! Even so, the shorter varieties of medium-chain saturated fatty acids (as are found in coconut oil) feature around 4 calories per gram. Calories-counts should not govern which foods you do and don’t eat. Check out my popular post 6 Reasons Counting Calories to Lose Weight Doesn’t Work.
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