What you need to know about saturated fat
For years now, consuming saturated fat has been considered to be an unhealthy practice and it could lead to heart disease. Is this reputation warranted, or has saturated fat been picked on unfairly? This guide explains known facts about saturated fat and the scientific evidence about its role in health and explores whether or not we should re-think things about how much saturated fat we eat.
What is Saturated Fat?
Fat (or fatty acid) is classified as saturated or unsaturated based on its molecular structure. Every fatty acid contains a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms. View the diagram below.
Saturated fats don’t have any double bonds between their chain of carbons, allowing more hydrogen atoms to be attached to the carbon atoms, and therefore are said to be “saturated” with hydrogens. This structure makes them solid at room temperature.
By contrast, an unsaturated fat contains at least one double bond between its carbon atoms — notice in the illustration fewer hydrogen atoms attached to the carbons with the double bond. This chain is now “unsaturated” with hydrogen atoms and remains liquid or semi-liquid at room temperature.
What foods have saturated fats?
Saturated fats are found in both plant and animal products. Many foods we eat contain a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. For instance, although olive oil, nuts, and avocados are typically considered unsaturated fat sources, these foods provide some saturated fat as well.
Here are the amounts of saturated fat in some popular low-carb foods:
1 tablespoon (14 grams) coconut oil: 13 grams
3.5 ounces (100 grams) pork belly: 10-12 grams
3.5 ounces (100 grams) ribeye steak: 8-12 grams
1 ounce (30 grams) dark chocolate (70-85% cacao): 7-9 grams
1 tablespoon (14 grams) butter: 7 grams
1 ounce (30 grams) cheese: 5-7 grams
1 tablespoon (14 grams) tallow: 6 grams
1 tablespoon (14 grams) lard: 5 grams
1 ounce (30 grams) macadamia nuts: 4 grams
3.5 ounces (100 grams) chicken drumstick: 4 grams
1 medium avocado: 4 grams
1 tablespoon (14 grams) heavy cream: 4 grams
1 tablespoon (14 grams) olive oil: 2 grams
Keep in mind that many other keto friendly foods contain a small amount of saturated fat.
Saturated fat and health risks: the evidence to date
A few years ago, there was an article that revealed that people living in European countries with the highest consumption of saturated fat have the lowest risk of dying from heart disease.
And what do systematic reviews of observational studies and controlled studies — considered the strongest, most reliable evidence — tell us about saturated fat intake and the risk of CHD, other diseases, and death from any cause?
A 2009 meta-analysis of 28 cohort studies and 16 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) found no significant association between saturated fat intake and CHD events or CHD mortality.
A 2010 meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies found no association between saturated fat intake on CHD outcomes aside from a slightly lower risk of stroke.
A 2015 meta-analysis of 17 observational studies found that saturated fats had no association with heart disease, all-cause mortality, or any other disease.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 7 cohort studies found no significant association between saturated fat intake and CHD death.
And although two systematic reviews of clinical trials found that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats may slightly reduce the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular events, many other extensive reviews have failed to establish any such benefit.
Recently, Mente and colleagues published a large study that examined dietary patterns and lipid data from over 100,000 people in 18 countries around the world. Called the PURE study, its data analysis found that higher saturated fat intake was associated with beneficial effects on a number of cardiovascular risk factors, including higher HDL levels, lower triglyceride levels, and – what seemed to be the strongest predictor of CHD risk — a decreased ratio of ApoB (found in LDL particles) to Apo A (found in HDL particles)
What’s more, although eating a lot of saturated fat was linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels, these elevated values didn’t reliably predict future heart attack events or deaths. Therefore, lowering saturated fat intake in an effort to reduce LDL cholesterol isn’t likely to decrease the risk of cardiovascular events. Additional follow up seven years later in the PURE study revealed no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease but in fact a decreased risk for all-cause mortality and stroke.
It appears that high saturated fat intake may increase LDL cholesterol concentrations in some people, either modestly or significantly. Additionally, researchers report that myristic acid (a saturated fat found in many foods like coconut oil, palm kernel oil, butter, cream, cheese and meat) has a greater effect on both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels than most other saturated fats.
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Article written By Franziska Spritzler, RD