The dietary dilemma
Most of us have heard all the time that saturated fats are bad for us. Clogging arteries, leading to heart attacks and all that.
On the other hand, fatty diets are in vogue today, with some propagandists going so far as to claim that saturated fats are healthy and should not be restricted at all (and some even encourage eating more).
Another critical aspect: meals that contain saturated fat are often very tasty.
We end up standing in front of the fridge in utter confusion. Will butter finish me off?
As with many things we eat (carbs! red meat! soy!) with saturated fats… it’s not all so clear-cut.
Let’s get this straight.
How did saturated fat become bad?
In 1978, the famous Seven Nations Study was published. This work, led by American physiologist Ansel Keys, noted
CVDs are more common in countries with a high saturated fat intake (e.g. USA),
CVDs are less prevalent in countries with low saturated fat consumption (e.g. Italy, Greece and Spain).
On the basis of which Case suggested that saturated fat leads to CVDs, so it should be avoided. Unsaturated fats (from plant sources) are protective against CVDs and should be avoided.
(Incidentally, it was these observations that led to the creation of the Mediterranean diet).
In short, the scientific (and then philistine) world has come to regard saturated fats as harmful mainly because of this study.
But is it really so?
Well, generally speaking, yes, but it’s complicated. If you’ve been reading Precision Nutrition for a while, you’re already aware that the magical world of food isn’t black and white at all.
Some people’s saturated fats increase their cholesterol and risk of CVDs, while others don’t. It all – as usual – depends on the dose.
Excess saturated fat is not good for anyone (neither is water, vegetables, protein etc – nothing new).
But in the half-century since Case’s research, scientists have continued to study the issue, so now we can tell you more about fats.
Fats: a short course
Before discussing saturated fats specifically, let’s talk about fats in general.
Each fatty acid consists of a carbon ‘chain’ of varying length (from 2 to 24 atoms). And each carbon atom has two open “slots” to form bonds with two hydrogen atoms.
And the way these slots are filled determines the chemical structure of the fatty acid.
The terms ‘saturated’, ‘monounsaturated’ and ‘polyunsaturated’ describe fatty acids with different chemical structures (causing them to affect our bodies in different ways).
What are saturated fats?
These fatty acids (and fats) have a ‘saturated’ carbon chain: each carbon atom is linked to two hydrogen atoms.
Examples of saturated fatty acids of different lengths:
- butyric acid (4 carbon atoms, produced by intestinal bacteria through fibre fermentation),
- caprylic acid (8 carbon atoms, found in coconut)
- palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms, found in palm oil and animal fats)
- stearic acid (18 carbon atoms, found in red meat and cocoa butter)
- arachidic acid (20 carbon atoms, found in peanuts).
Saturated and unsaturated: what is the difference?
Monounsaturated fats have one double bond between the carbon atoms (because they are not bonded to hydrogen atoms).
But polyunsaturated fatty acids have several double bonds between the carbon atoms.
Here’s an easy way to tell if a fat is saturated or unsaturated without having to carry it to the lab:
If it’s solid or semi-solid at room temperature (21℃), it’s probably saturated (there are a few exceptions, of course). For example, butter, coconut oil and cocoa butter.
If liquid, however, it is most likely unsaturated. For example, sunflower and olive oils.
The fact is that the carbon double bonds “correlate” the formula of unsaturated fatty acids, the substance is not as dense and “melts” at room temperature. The molecules of saturated fatty acids remain straight and even, the substance is denser and harder.
Most of the foods we eat contain a mixture of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.
Trans fats: and here are the really bad guys
And last are the trans fatty acids. And if you’re so keen to stigmatise and curse a certain type of fat, these should be avoided.
Trans fatty acids are usually derived from industrial food processing, where polyunsaturated fats are artificially ‘saturated’ with extra hydrogen.
Hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids ‘straightens’ the molecule, so that these trans fat mutants now look (and act) like saturated fats.
Which is great for the manufacturers, as their products can now gather dust on the shelves much longer.
And our bodies don’t really like trans fats.
Trans fatty acids are directly linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, pregnancy complications, colorectal cancer, diabetes, obesity and allergies .
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even determined that industrial hydrogenated fats are no longer “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) and is taking steps to eliminate them from foods.
But while trans fats are everywhere. Margarines, cooking oils as well as many processed foods and baked goods, in general any product that contains ‘partially hydrogenated oil’, contain trans fats.
The WHO recommends limiting trans fat intake to 1% (or less) of the daily calorie intake .
Note: There are also several natural trans fats called ruminant trans fatty acids, such as conjugated linoleic acid and wacenoic acid. They are formed with the help of bacteria in the stomach of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats). And – unlike industrial trans fats – are not associated with negative health effects .
Which foods have more saturated fats?
In foods that we think of as ‘fats’, fat is the main macronutrient (although they also contain carbohydrates and protein). So too, the foods we think of as ‘saturated fat sources’ have more saturated fatty acids than unsaturated ones.
In short, is butter the yellow death or what?
And here’s the answer to the question that’s been plaguing you.
No. Saturated fats are not poisonous in themselves.
A healthy diet will, of course, also include some saturated fats, as they are found in many healthy foods (nuts and seeds, coconut and avocado, animal sources of protein).
Still, their intake should be controlled. Here’s why.
Saturated fats, cholesterol and cardiovascular disease
Those Mediterraneans watched by Ansel Keys did indeed show excellent results: on their diet (vegetables, whole grains, fruit, seafood, olives, nuts and some dairy) their CVD rates were strikingly low.
But the Americans (lots of saturated fats, meat, dairy and desserts, but few vegetables) had one of the highest rates in the world.
We’ve had plenty of time to figure this out:
- Saturated fats, when consumed in excess (more than 10% of daily calories), increase LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels as well as the likelihood of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease in general .
- Reducing the proportion of saturated fat in the diet also reduces the risk of CVDs .
- However, saturated fat consumption does not increase mortality. They have little effect on the risk of cancer, diabetes, increased HDL, triglyceride levels and blood pressure .
- Trans fats, on the other hand, increase the risk of CVDs and increase mortality .
- And consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is associated with a lower risk of CVDs and death .
What does all this mean?
Well, it means that it is advisable:
Prefer foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, i.e. nuts and seeds, seafood, olives and olive oil, avocados,
control the consumption of foods rich in saturated fats, i.e. fatty meat, high-fat dairy, palm oil and coconuts,
limit or eliminate foods rich in trans fats, i.e. many processed and prepared foods, cooking oils and margarine, anything containing hydrogenated oils.
Should everyone cut back on saturated fats?
Most people in Western countries eat quite a lot of saturated fats, so it’s worth thinking about…
(Besides, as far as we know, reducing saturated fat does not seem to have any harmful effects )
But there’s a nuance.
You can’t just throw away saturated fat, it all depends on what you’re replacing it with.
For example, if you overdo saturated fat and then replace some of it with unsaturated fat, it will do you good .
However, if you switch to refined carbohydrates instead of saturated fats, your risk of heart attack only increases .
Also, not all saturated fatty acids are equally useless: for example, the stearic acid found in beef and cocoa butter may reduce (or have no effect on) LDL levels .
The effects of saturated fat on our bodies depend on many factors:
- the amount and types of other fats in the diet,
- intake of fruits, vegetables and fibre,
- excess calories,
- frequency and intensity of exercise,
- stress levels and ability to cope,
But let’s focus on the very basics:
1. Quantity: not too much and not too little. About 30 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from different types of fats (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).
2. Ratio: approximately equal shares of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
If your diet is balanced, contains lots of natural foods, and you don’t go overboard on calories, you probably don’t need to worry about saturated fats either.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t force-feed saturated fats because of trendy trends (like coffee and butter).
So how much to weigh in grams?
The answer, as always, is simple and straightforward: it depends.
For starters, you can take this guideline: saturated fat should account for about 10% (or less) of your daily calorie intake .
For example, if you calculate a calorie allowance of 2000 calories, saturated fat would account for about 200 calories – or 22.2 grams.
Here’s how you can gain them:
– 200 grams of beef = 12 grams of saturated fat.
– 30 grams of cheddar cheese = 6 grams of saturated fat.
– 3 large eggs = 5 grams of saturated fat
= 23 grams of saturated fat
– 170 grams of salmon = 5 grams of saturated fat
– 1 tablespoon of coconut oil = 12 grams of saturated fat
– 1 avocado = 4 grams of saturated fat
= 21 grams of saturated fat
As you can see, gaining that 10% is not that difficult. And it’s easy to overdo it if you choose fattier chunks and like to cook with palm oil, coconut oil or butter.
Still, we suggest not getting hung up on the numbers, instead focusing on the following four points.
1. Eat a variety of fats
A healthy dietary balance can be achieved by simply choosing a variety of natural foods with minimal processing as sources of fats, such as
- nuts and seeds
- Dairy products
- oily fish
- Beef, pork and lamb
- Olives, black olives and extra virgin olive oil
- Include one or two items from this list at each meal.
2. avoid trans fats
Try to minimise or eliminate refined and processed foods that contain hydrogenated oils.
This generally happens on its own when you start eating natural foods.
3. Take your individuality into account
The most important thing is to adjust your saturated fat intake according to your physique, preferences and needs.
If, for example, you have relatives with CVDs, you may (genetically) be more susceptible to the negative effects of saturated fats, so it is worth limiting their intake.
And someone can eat more of them, for example:
Larger, more muscular and physically active people can eat proportionately more in general, including more saturated fats (sticking to the guideline 10%)
If you (or your client) just need to eat croissants with bitter chocolate and drink coffee with cream, don’t immediately ‘ban’. Keep the fats under control, aware of their effects, and enjoy yourself.
Some people feel better when they eat slightly more fats (including saturated fats). However, if saturated fats become a base source of calories, blood cholesterol and lipid levels should be checked regularly.
4. Have doubts? Experiment!
Although we suggest limiting saturated fat intake to 10% of daily calories (especially if you have a family history of CVDs), some people want to try higher-fat diets, such as keto.
And great – give it a try.
But act like a true scientist: first, define the objectives of the experiment, what do you want to achieve? Lose weight? Get rid of compulsive food cravings? Increase your energy level? (more on diet experiments)
Then record the following indicators:
Weight, volumes, photos
Energy level, sleep quality, digestion, mood (you can simply score on a scale of 1 to 10)
Cholesterol (HDL, LDL, total), triglycerides, fasting blood sugar (all with your doctor, of course)
Anything else you want to track, such as cravings or degree of satiety after a meal.
Then embark on an experiment: increase the proportion of fats.
Once every week or two, “check” most of the above indicators (repeat the blood test after about three months).
If you feel it’s going well, continue. Every few months, assess how you are doing overall.
Do you look and feel better? Do avocados and coconuts still taste good? Is the doctor praising your tests? Great!
Keep it up and get tested again in six months.
Feeling lousy and your blood lipid levels are spiking? OK, that’s not for you, cut back on fats, especially saturated fats.
In general, find a diet that suits you (and your doctor).
Don’t just follow fashions (like butter in coffee), but listen to your body.
That pack of oils won’t kill you. But it probably won’t make you immortal either. It’s just oil.