If you follow diet and nutrition news, you may have caught wind that saturated fat is unhealthy…or that it’s healthy. Wait. What gives? There sure is a lot of conflicting nutrition information on the internet (what else is new, amiright?!). So is saturated fat bad for you? I’m going to help set the record straight. The short science-based answer is: no.
I’ve been on the front lines of the saturated-fat-advocacy movement for over a decade now.
Simply put: saturated fat helps you 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 beyond tasty and satiating.
Saturated fat should be an integral part of your daily diet.
Research Doesn’t 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 It’s So Healthy, Why Aren’t We All Eating More of It?
Saturated fat’s bad wrap 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 prioritize 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 biggest 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. But saturated fatty acid structure tells a different story.
In truth—truth that’s based on actual science—all “saturated” 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.”)
Is saturated fat loaded with hydrogen atoms? Yes! Is saturated fat bad for you? I repeat: no!
Saturated Fat vs. Trans Fat
Saturated fat seems to get the same bad wrap as the trans fat that’s found in hydrogenated oil. And while hydrogenated oil definitely deserves its nasty reputation, saturated fat does not.
Let’s get one thing clear: saturated fat is naturally-occurring. Trans fat from hydrogenated oils is not. That fact should tell you everything.
Hydrogenated oil and partially hydrogenated oil is the result of a complicated laboratory process, in which liquid oil is converted into a solid fat. During processing, certain chemical bonds in the oil are changed from their natural state into a trans form never seen in nature. (There are actually healthy trans fats, but hydrogenated oils are definitely not one of them!).
Synthetic trans fats are molecules completely foreign to your body and wreak all sorts of havoc. They
- raise your bad LDL cholesterol
- lower your good HDL cholesterol
- cause inflammation
- are linked to insulin resistance, diabetes, infertility, and immune dysfunction.
The real question is: what do synthetic trans fats not mess up? So why are hydrogenated oils so popular? Namely, because they offer the kind of evenly-smooth thickening properties healthy saturated fats offer (i.e. coconut and palm oil, butter, lard and tallow), but are a hell of a lot cheaper because they come from refined vegetable oils.
Now that we’re clear on the difference between saturated and trans fats, let’s talk about some of the AMAZING things saturated fat does? Read on to learn about six (delicious) saturated fat benefits for optimal health and weight loss or maintenance.
Saturated Fat Benefits
When you read these benefits of saturated fat, you’ll never again ask if saturated fat is bad for you.
1) 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 (a 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.)
Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, Cardiovascular Disease
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) Is 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 coconut oil–which is entirely saturated fat– 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. The saturated fat in coconut oil provides antioxidant protection to oxidative stressors.
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.)
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated 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. (For more on this subject, check out my article Tired Of The Calories In Calories Out Weight Loss Method? Try This Instead.)
4) Helps your body use other nutrients
In order to lose weight and ensure optimal health, you have to eat nutrient-dense food–and you have to be able to absorb those nutrients. A low-fat diet will not help your body do this, nor will a higher-fat diet that lacks sufficient SATURATED fat.
We need saturated fat to absorb calcium and deposit it in our bones. In Connie Leas’s book Fat: It’s Not What You Think, the author highlights nutritional research that emphasizes at least 50 percent of dietary fat should be saturated in order for our bones to adequately metabolize calcium.
Plus, like I said before, saturated fat comes with other key nutrients in animal foods (particularly pastured animal foods), like the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which aid absorption of minerals that our bones, brain, and nervous system rely on to function.
We also need saturated fat to fully convert the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA. Read why you MUST eat animal foods to obtain adequate levels–and adequately balanced levels–of EPA and DHA in my post You’re Being Fed BS About Omega-3 from Chia, Flax & Plant Foods (and What You Can Do about It)
5) Promotes weight loss and a slim waistline
First things first: saturated fat is just plain satiating. Eat lots of saturated fat, and you’re doing the smartest, most powerful thing you can do to balance blood sugar and insulin in a way that makes you
- feel satisfied and free from cravings
- able to go extended periods of time between meals (many in my program TOTAL CLEANSE BOOTCAMP report being able to go for 6+ hours without feeling hungry, shaky, irritable, or lightheaded!)
- comfortable to eat less overall (and spend less money on food overall) because you are so satiated.
Let’s Talk Belly Fat
A compelling study published in The Lancet found adipose tissue (stored fat, often located around the waistline, that is linked to heightened disease risk) is largely associated with unsaturated fats, not saturated fats.
Positive associations were found between serum and plaque omega 6 (r = 0.75) and omega 3 (r = 0.93) polyunsaturated fatty acids, and monounsaturates (r = 0.70), and also between adipose tissue and plaque omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (r = 0.89). No associations were found with saturated fatty acids.
You read right: belly-fat ain’t comin’ from saturated fat. Saturated fat is not bad for your
What’s more, research indicates medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCTs), which are largely found in coconut oil, are broken down quickly and used mainly for energy, rarely winding up as body fat. (Of course, if you eat way more than you actually need of anything, you can gain weight. Don’t interpret this as an encouragement to down jars upon jars of coconut oil per day. This would not be smart. Also: ew.)
A 2013 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Healthcare found: “higher dairy fat consumption was associated with a lower risk of central obesity” (read: belly-fat). On the other hand, the study found “low dairy fat intake was associated with a higher risk of central obesity.” Simply put: foods high in saturated fat, like dairy, did not promote weight gain, particularly around the midsection.
Another 2013 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found high-fat dairy fat consumption was associated with lowered risk of obesity:
“In 11 of 16 studies, high-fat dairy intake was inversely associated with measures of adiposity [obesity]. Studies examining the relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and metabolic health reported either an inverse or no association.”
The same study noted the possibility that any variability in data could be the result of “differences in…bovine feeding practices (pasture- vs. grain-based) known to influence the composition of dairy fat.”
An optimal diet emphasizes grass-fed/pastured animal foods with saturated fat. (Discover more about the importance of grass-fed/pastured animal foods in #6 below, and in my popular post here.)
6) Foods with saturated fat taste AMAZING
What kind of foods am I talking about? These:
- Whole eggs (ideally from pastured hens)
- Meat and poultry, and organ meat (ideally organic and grass-fed meat)
- Dairy if tolerated (ideally from grass-fed/pastured animals, organic and whole-fat varieties of butter, milk, cheese, plain unsweetened yogurt and kefir, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc.)
- Lard and tallow (ideally from pastured animals)
- Tropical oils (i.e. sustainably-sourced coconut oil and palm oil)
- Coconuts/coconut meat/coconut “manna.”
Grass-fed/pastured animal foods are ideal sources of nourishment for many reasons. One reason is that grass-fed/pastured animal foods contain an ideal balance of stable saturated fats to unstable unsaturated fats.
In comparison to foods from grain-fed animals (regardless of whether or not those grains are organic), grass-fed/pastured animal foods contain less of the unstable unsaturated fat known as omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid. Good stuff!
That’s Why You Should Eat Lots of Saturated Fat
The tendency for unsaturated fats to oxidize is the reason why vibrant, savvy, discerning health revolutionaries embrace eating saturated fat (from meat, eggs, dairy, and tropical oils) instead of tons of unsaturated fat from plant oils (i.e. canola and even flax) and processed vegetable oils (like an order of commercial French fries).
Health revolutionaries would rather use real full-fat sour cream, full-fat coconut milk, or homemade mayonnaise (made with whole eggs and avocado oil or olive oil) in a recipe for coleslaw, instead of store-bought mayonnaise made with soybean or canola oil—no matter if those plant oils are refined, unprocessed, non-GMO, and/or organic. Check out my Healthiest Mayonnaise Recipe.
Eating fat–especially saturated fat–isn’t bad for you and it doesn’t make you fat. It promotes health and helps you lose weight. I talk about this extensively in my 2013 bestselling book Eat Like a Fatass, Look Like a Goddess: The Untold Story of Healthy Foods, and multiple articles on this website.
Now, when you think of the word “saturated,” remember it sounds a lot more like the words “stable” and “satisfying” than it does “unhealthy.”
When Is Saturated Fat Bad for You? The Exceptions
I’m absolutely not an absolutist! I’m all about bio-individuality. There are always cases in which a food, nutrient, or compound may not be as health-promoting as it generally is for most people. Saturated fat is no different.
For some people, poor lipid metabolism due to an overloaded liver and/or genetic factors can make certain kinds of fat, like saturated fat, more provocative.
- Factors like an overloaded liver/gallbladder are generally reversible with strategic support.
- Genetics aren’t everything because epigenetics is what turns genes on and off, and genes are not always active or “turned on,” even if you have them. If genes are “turned on” they might contribute to an undesirable lipid profile.
For some people, saturated fat can contribute to elevations in LPS (lipopolysaccharides), which are inflammatory and provocative to the immune system. Yes, even if tons of solid research says saturated fat is the healthiest and most stable kind of fat.
Again, bio-individuality is key.
The Problems with Lipid Testing
To boot, standard lipid panels are extremely limited in differentiating between unhealthy and health lipoporoteins (read: “cholesterol”). This is because it’s more complicated than HDL-is-the-good-cholesterol and LDL-is-the-bad-cholesterol. In reality, there are healthy and unhealthy varieties of both HDL and LDL (and more than just LDL and VLDL). When I read these tests, I know how to exploit them for the value they provide and not get distracted by surface details.
When you need more nuanced information, it’s important to run cholesterol tests that are able to detect and report the difference between healthy and healthy particles of LDL and healthy and unhealthy particles of HDL. These tests include the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) test or VAP (Vertical Auto Profile). Most doctors rely on standard lipid panels. Unfortunately, most doctors will not run these tests unless you ask, and even then, many won’t run them, or if they do they have not been trained to skillfully interpret them and consider them alongside a holistic profile of symptoms, diet, genetics, lifestyle, etc.
This is why I encourage you to go deeper in getting to know your body. Work with an informed guide. Test, don’t guess. Learn about which tests are helpful, and which aren’t.
With all that said, generally-speaking, saturated fat is not bad for most people.
(For a deeper diver into the myths and truth about cholesterol, check out my articles 10 Surprising Things You Need To Know About Cholesterol and 5 Surprising Dietary Changes for Healthy Cholesterol Levels.)
If Saturated Fat Isn’t Bad, What Is?
It’s what we’re replacing saturated fat with that’s hurting us.
What are these things? They’re things that trigger inflammation and oxidation in our bodies: excess carbohydrates (sugars and starches), synthetic trans fats, and plant/vegetable oils.
Saturated fat isn’t bad for you. It doesn’t promote weight gain. Nor is it something to be avoided or feared.
After everything I just unpacked, need I say more?
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Feature image Copyright Erika Herman. “Comic bubble” illustration copyright DAPA Images.