Saturated fat has a very bad reputation in the nutrition and health community. We’ve been told to limit it, if not completely avoid it, because these “bad fats” are the cause of poor health, heart disease, and poor health. But what if we got it wrong? What if these natural fats are actually not as bad as we thought and can fit into a healthy and balanced diet? Here is a case for saturated fat, what it is, and why it’s actually good for you.
Since the rise of the diet-heart hypothesis in the 1960s saturated fats have gotten a bad rap. This hypothesis suggested that eating saturated fat raised cholesterol in our blood, clogged out arteries, and was the main contributor to heart disease. In turn, this led people to remove sources of saturated fats in their diet, reducing consumption of fatty cuts of meat, butter, egg yolks, and bacon, leading people to opt for skim milk, lean cuts of meat, egg whites, and low-fat dressings. However, some 50 years later, it turns out saturated fat is not the dietary evil it was made out to be.
The Big Saturated Fat Mistake
The fear of saturated fat began in the 1950s when Ancel Keys, a researcher, published The Seven Countries Study linking saturated fat and cholesterol with rising rates of heart disease. This study was the largest catalyst in the demonizing and fear of saturated fats, which lead to an increase in the production and consumption of low-fat and fat-free products. With a limited understanding and knowledge of the roles of saturated fats at the time, this theory went rather undebated for many years. However, unfortunately, upon further research and understanding, these findings have come under serious question. (1) As it turns out, Key’s research was heavily flawed and the data presented was not truly representative of his findings. “Keys based his theory on a study of six countries, in which higher saturated fat intake equated to higher rates of heart disease. However, he conveniently ignored data from 16 other countries that did not fit his theory. Had he chosen a different set of countries, the data would have shown that increasing the percent of calories from fat reduces the number of deaths from coronary heart disease.” (2)
In recent years, new studies have disproved the diet-heart hypothesis and debunked it many times (3), however, unfortunately, the concept that saturated fats are unhealthy and cause heart disease remains one of the largest nutritional myths, that continues to be perpetuated by mainstream media today.
Saturated Fats are Whole Foods
After more than 50 years of being told that saturated fats are unhealthy and should be avoided in the diet, it can be a big shift in mindset to consider that saturated fat can actually be healthy and should be consumed in the diet. However, if you take a step back and look at the big picture when you consider the biggest sources of saturated fats, they are in fact all whole foods that humans have evolved to eat for thousands of years. If we got rid of all of the grocery stores tomorrow and were dependent on our environment and surroundings in order to find our food, we would have absolutely no choice but to eat whole foods, which contain saturated fat. Mother nature does not produce low-fat, fat-free or light options, it only produces whole fats in their whole format; egg yolks, bacon, butter, and animal fats are all whole foods. Humans evolved eating wild game, marine life, and plant life, and have consumed unprocessed forms of saturated fats (organ meats, blubber, milk, or coconuts) for our entire existence. In fact, current tribes from around the world still consume diets high in saturated fats; Eskimo tribes consume native diets with up to 75% saturated fats, the Maasai Tribe in Kenya consumes a diet with up to 66% saturated fat, and Tokealu of New Zealand consume a diet of 60% saturated fat with virtually no heart disease (4).
Is all Saturated Fat Healthy?
In short, the answer is yes, but only when you are focused on whole foods. Contrary to the commonly accepted view, saturated fats do not clog arteries or cause heart disease, and (thankfully), there is now plenty of evidence to support this (5). Saturated fats are one of the many forms of dietary fat, which is one of the essential macronutrients in the human diet.
The Benefits of Saturated Fat
From a biological perspective, humans actually require saturated fats because we are warm-blooded. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and these fats provide the appropriate stiffness and structure to our cell membranes and tissues. Therefore, the consumption of whole unprocessed, naturally occurring sources of saturated fats is considered beneficial to our health, not detrimental.
Improved Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Saturated fat plays a key role in cardiovascular health. The addition of saturated fat to the diet reduces the levels of a substance called lipoprotein (a) that correlates strongly with the risk for heart disease. (6)
Strengthen the Immune System: Loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. (7)
Improved Brain Health: The brain is made primarily of fat and cholesterol. Although many people might be familiar with the importance of essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 for brain health, the majority of fatty acids in the brain are in fact saturated, therefore a diet low in saturated fats robs the brain of its natural building blocks. (8)
Improved Lung Health: The lungs cannot function without saturated fats; the airspaces of the lungs have to be coated with a thin layer of lung surfactant. The fat content of lung surfactant is 100% saturated fatty acids. (9)
Improved Liver Health: Saturated fats actually encourage the liver cells to dump their fat cells, which helps the liver to function more effectively. (10)
Essential for Nutrient Absorption: Vitamins A, D, and K2 cannot be absorbed into our bodies without saturated fats acting as a carrier. (11)
But, what about cholesterol?
If you are wondering where cholesterol fits into all of this, it’s right there with saturated fats. It is important to understand that cholesterol is actually produced by the liver and has many roles in the body including building cell membranes, and hormone function and much of your brain is made up of cholesterol. Cholesterol also metabolizes all of the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are essential for health. In fact, cholesterol has more of a protective role in our blood vessels than a damaging one. Our blood vessels can become damaged in a number of ways, and when this happens, the body’s natural healing substance steps in to repair the damage – that substance is cholesterol. (12) Much like the saturated fat myth, the misunderstanding of dietary cholesterol lead it to be demonized, however, cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease, but rather a weapon used to repair arterial damage. Much like saturated fats, dietary forms of cholesterol have received a rap that they don’t deserve.
Saturated Fat – Quality Over Quantity
Humans have consumed saturated fats from animals and plant products for thousands of years, and thankfully this is now a widely accepted view. However just because saturated fats are healthy does not mean you need to start binging on them by the bucket full, and it is important to remember that quality is important.
When it comes to saturated fats, it is important to consider the source and quality of the fat you are consuming. I am by no means suggesting that you go chow down on saturated fats from processed meats and hot dogs, it’s all about context. Fruit is healthy, but fruit-flavored lollipops are not. You should avoid saturated fats that are processed or not found in their natural form. Rather, if you are focused on eating actual whole foods such as coconut oil, avocado, grass-fed beef, pastured butter, tallow, ghee, and free-range eggs, amongst a well-balanced diet of whole foods, these forms of saturated fats are beneficial to the body. Saturated fats are the best sources of cooking oil, and consider sourcing well-raised animal products is important to ensure superior quality of saturated fats. The fats we eat must be chosen with care, and when consumed in a well-balanced diet of whole foods they are incredibly important and beneficial for optimal health.