Saturated fat has gotten a bad rap over the years. Yet, if you look a little deeper, listen to lipid scientists, and follow current research, you’ll find that saturated fat is actually somewhat misunderstood and is an integral part of our diet. In a 2015 Harvard Health Publishing article presented by Harvard Medical School, the controversy is confronted very concisely: “Why are trans fats bad for you, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats good for you, and saturated fats somewhere in-between? For years, fat was a four-letter word. We were urged to banish it from our diets whenever possible. We switched to low-fat foods. But the shift didn’t make us healthier, probably because we cut back on healthy fats as well as harmful ones.”
Like most things, the facts surrounding the consumption of saturated fat are not simple, straightforward, and easy to follow.
For one, not any old saturated fat will do, where you acquire it is incredibly important. There are good sources including healthy, plant-based foods such as avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil. There are also not so healthy sources such as certain meat and dairy products including creams and whole milk.
What is it about saturated fat that makes it both healthy and unhealthy? What are the benefits of incorporating saturated fat into your diet? Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this controversial fat!
What is Saturated Fat?
The common misconception of healthy versus unhealthy fats is an easy one to make due to their incredibly similar chemical structure. For instance, all fats are made of “a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms.” So, how do you tell them apart? Look at length, shape, and count the hydrogen atoms! These slight differences take a healthy fat — such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — and turn it into an unhealthy fat — such as a trans-fat — or even our confusing in-between saturated fat.
Saturated fats “are solid at room temperature.” They are commonly found in “red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods, cheese, coconut oil, and many commercially prepared baked goods,” as well as a handful of plant-based foods. When it comes to figuring out that confusing chemical structure, simply look at the name. Saturated fat is labeled that way due to the fact that saturated “refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom” in particular “the chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible — it’s saturated with hydrogens,” hence saturated fat.
The Saturated Fat Controversy
Alright, we know what saturated fat is, but is it safe to consume? Moreover, is it healthy to consume?
This is where it gets a bit controversial and a bit messy.
Initially, the research found that “a diet rich in saturated fats can drive up total cholesterol, and tip the balance towards more harmful LDL cholesterol, which prompts blockages to form in arteries in the heart and elsewhere in the body.” Due to these initial findings, many nutritionists and healthcare providers recommend keeping “saturated fat to under 10% of calories a day.”
So, it’s bad for you? Not exactly.
Saturated fat was somewhat demonized during the industrializing of foods, particularly when other types of fat substitutes were being promoted by big food companies (remember margarine?). Since that time, researchers and lipid scientists have been hard at work researching the health effects of saturated fat and those findings have been somewhat surprising.
There is a plethora of information dispelling the dangers of saturated fat. Most likely, you’ve been steered clear of saturated fat for most of your life. What about the other side of the coin? In recent years, as the connection between nutrition and overall health and mental well-being has grown stronger, so has the evidence stating that saturated fat may not be the evil we all thought it was. Here are a few studies that purport positively on the consumption of saturated fat.
One study performed in 2015 at the Norwich Medical School, found that there were no statistical effects “of reducing saturated fat, in regard to heart attacks, strokes or all-cause deaths.” With that said, the study did find that “although reducing saturated fat had no effects, replacing some of it with polyunsaturated fat led to a 27% lower risk of cardiovascular events (but not death, heart attacks or strokes).”
Two other studies regarding saturated fat and heart disease — one a joint effort between universities headed by De Souza RJ, et al and the other performed at the Oakland Research Institute by Siri-Tarino PW, et al — both came to similar conclusions. De Souza Rj, et al found that “people who consumed more saturated fat were not more likely to experience heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes or death from any cause, compared to those who ate less saturated fat.” Siri-Tarino PW, et al came to a similar conclusion in that the study “did not find any association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease.
Yet another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine Journal in 2014 entitled “Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risks” found that “people with higher saturated fat intake were not at an increased risk of heart disease or sudden death,” and furthermore “the researchers did not find any benefit to consuming polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats.”
Various other studies have looked at saturated fat and longevity. While there might not be an increase in longevity, there also isn’t a decrease in longevity. For instance, “several studies that replaced saturated fat with polyunsaturated vegetable oils showed that more people in the vegetable oil groups ended up dying.” Another massive study by the Women’s Health Initiative focused on a “controlled trial with 46, 835 women, who were instructed to eat a low-fat diet.” The study lasted between seven and a half to eight years and found that “there was zero difference in heart disease cancer or death.”
If you’re still not convinced, simply google “studies on saturated fat and heart disease” and you’ll find study after study purporting no connection between the two.
Healthy Ways to Consume Saturated Fat
With that said, there’s no perfect answer when it comes to saturated fat. Research is still ongoing in regards to its effects on human health. Yet, it’s pretty clear that consuming the right sources and appropriate amounts of saturated fat doesn’t increase your risk of heart-related illnesses and offer some benefits of its own. So, what is the right way to consume saturated fat?
Get the Right Balance
While saturated fat may be neutral, there are a few other fats — such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated — that offer a higher level of nutrition along with the fat. By integrating nutritionally rich fat with saturated fat, you’ll reap all the benefits. A recent One Green Planet article entitled Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats: How to Source Them in a Plant-Based Diet outlines the benefits of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats:
“Polyunsaturated fats provide a dose of a powerful antioxidant, Vitamin E, and those much sought after omega fatty acids. In fact, polyunsaturated fats are broken down into two different groups: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are not produced naturally in the body and must be consumed through diet. Polyunsaturated fat has been linked to a decrease in LDL cholesterol, better brain function and cellular growth, and improved mental disorders such as anxiety and depression … Typical foods high in polyunsaturated fats include oils such as olive, sunflower, and soybean, as well as edamame, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and a variety of fish such as mackerel, albacore tuna, and salmon … While polyunsaturated fats are a bit harder to come by on a strict plant-based diet, monounsaturated fats are found in a variety of plant-based staples such as avocados, peanut butter, chia seeds, and oils such as olive, peanut, sunflower, safflower, and sesame. A great example of the health benefits of monounsaturated fats can be found in studies related to the Mediterranean diet, in which a high healthy fat diet led to a decrease in heart disease.”
More Nutritional Foods and Safer Cooking Oils
Foods that are high in saturated fat also happen to be quite nutritious and very healthy. For instance, avocados have a healthy dose of saturated fat, as well as a whole heaping pile of nutrients such as vitamins — A, C, E, K, B6 and B12, folate, niacin, and choline — minerals — such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc — monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, dietary fat, and protein.
Plus, oils high in saturated fat, such as coconut oil, are safer for cooking and frying. While polyunsaturated fats “easily oxidize when they’re heated,” saturated fats “have no double bonds [making them] highly resistant to heat-induced damage.”
Healthy Plant-Based Saturated Fat Foods
If you plan to consume saturated fat, it’s best to choose healthy plant-based sources that also provide high levels of nutrients. Specifically, focus on foods that also have high levels of antioxidants and other healthy fats. Luckily, there are a handful of great options!
Roasted Vegetable Guacamole/One Green Planet
One raw avocado has about 3 grams of saturated fat, yet it also balances that out with over 13 grams of monounsaturated fat and 2.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat. On top of that, avocado also has a slew of other nutrition including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, dietary fiber, a broad range of vitamins and minerals, and protein.
Chickpea Lentil Coconut Curry/One Green Planet
Depending on the type of coconut oil, you’ll get a different quantity of saturated fat. With that said, 90 percent of the fat contained within coconut is saturated fat. While coconut doesn’t have the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, these food items have been shown to suppress appetite, boost metabolism, decrease belly fat, and benefit some people who suffer from Alzheimer’s.
When it comes to coconut you can use the actual meat of the coconut — such as Bob’s Red Mill Shredded Coconut or this canned Young Coconut Meat — or you can use coconut oil. Simply substitute coconut oil for your other normal cooking oil in order to get that coconut dose of saturated fat.
Olive Oil and Orange Cookies/One Green Planet
Olive oil is one of the healthiest food items to have in your kitchen. Not only does extra-virgin olive oil offer a healthy source of saturated fat, about two grams per tablespoon, but it’s also a great source for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and vitamins K and E. Extra-virgin olive oil is also packed with antioxidants which “fight inflammation and help protect the LDL particles in the blood from becoming oxidized,” resulting in reduced blood pressure, improved cholesterol, and improved heart health.
The same as coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil can be substituted for your normal cooking oil, eaten raw in salads, or used for baking in lieu of other unhealthy vegetable oils.
Raw Chia Caramel Pecan Pie/One Green Planet
These useful and delicious little nibbles are an important part of any plant-based diet! One hundred grams of chia seed offers up 3.2 grams of saturated fat, as well as a helping of polyunsaturated fat and a small dose of monounsaturated fat. Yet, the true gift of chia seeds is the wealth of other nutrition offered. Along with healthy fat, chia seeds are great for calcium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, and manganese, as well as protein and dietary fiber. Consumption of chia seeds has been linked to lower blood pressure and decreased bodily inflammation.
Wagon Wheels/One Green Planet
It tastes great, it’s incredibly versatile in the kitchen, and it’s also a great source of healthy fats, including saturated fat. In fact, about “65% of calories” derived from dark chocolate are from fat! With that said, dark chocolate is also loaded with other nutrients including fiber and “over 50% of the RDA for iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese.” On top of that, dark chocolate is known for its high levels of antioxidants which “have potent biological activity, and can lower blood pressure and protect LDL cholesterol in the blood from becoming oxidized.”
Try a few of these dark chocolate-based recipes: Raw Dark Chocolate Brownies, Spiced Dark Chocolate Banan Bread, Wagon Wheels, and Dark Chocolate Avocado Truffles (with saturated fat-friendly avocado as well!).
For a host of healthy saturated fat recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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