Saturated Fat - Good or Bad?
Saturated fat is an area of health that has suffered from huge misinformation, and that causes much confusion. Many of us associate saturated fat with hardened arteries, high cholesterol and expanding waistlines, but is this really true? Can butter really be good for us? Yes it can! And here's why...
It all started in the 1050’s when a scientist named Ancel Benjamin Keys successfully spread the message that saturated fat causes high cholesterol and heart disease. This, combined with a sharp increase in heart disease at that time in America, meant that dietary guidelines changed accordingly, and the rest is history. The trouble is, the original thinking and research was flawed in several ways, yet never questioned. Dozens of more recent studies over the decades have looked into whether or not saturated fat causes heart disease, and almost without exception, the answer has been no (1, 2). One study even found saturated fat intake to be linked to a reduced incidence of stroke (3).
What is saturated fat? All fats are made up of molecular chains of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The term ‘saturated’ simply means this type of fat is saturated with hydrogen atoms, rather than mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, which are less so. Within the classification of saturated fats, you will find long-chain, and medium-chain fats depending on the length of the molecular chain.
Examples of long-chain saturated fats include myristic, palmitic and stearic acid, found mainly in the milk and meat of cattle and sheep. This type of saturated fat makes up the majority of the fatty acids found in our cells, and they are burned efficiently and cleanly by the body for energy. They also bring other benefits such as helping to build healthy bones, reducing harmful lipoproteins, supporting the immune system, helping the body absorb fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, E, K and D, and helping to protect the liver from alcohol- and medication-related damage.
Medium-chain saturated fats are found in coconut milk and breast milk and are used quite differently by the body, in that are sent directly to the liver, giving a quick and easily-digestible source of energy. Medium chain saturated fats are also thought to promote a healthy metabolism, fat burning and encourage ketone formation - which may be beneficial for those that follow ketogenic diets, whether for weight loss or enhanced health purposes, or to treat certain neurological conditions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Lauric acid is the star ingredient in medium chain saturated fat like coconut milk, because it has antiviral, antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Coconut oil is ideal as a cooking fat, because it has a high smoke point meaning it is more stable and less prone to damage when heated.
Despite saturated fats being been part of our diet for millions of years, and bringing a host of health benefits, we have been led to believe that man-made alternatives are better for us, like margarine instead of butter, but newer scientific evidence brings this into question. Firstly, if you knew how margarine was made, and saw it throughout the process, the chances are you would never eat it again! That's not something I'll go into here, but eating margarine increases our intake of omega 6 fats, and refined ones at that, which already tend to be overloaded in our diets and can increase risk of inflammatory diseases (4). Secondly, evidence suggests that the stanols and sterols within many cholesterol-lowering margarines may be bad for our health, and ironically a higher level of these substances in the bloodstream can even increase our risk of cardiovascular disease (5, 6). Butter, on the other hand, contains vitamin K2, butyrate (a short-chain fat that helps keep your colon healthy), and omega 3 fats, especially when it's made from the milk of grass-fed cows.
So don’t be afraid to eat more natural saturated fat – while you don't need to gorge on the stuff, there's no need to be afraid of it in the way we've been led to believe. Some easy way to include healthy saturated fats in your diet:
When cooking, replace man-made and processed cooking oils and spreads with real, heat-stable fats like coconut oil, butter and yes, even lard, dripping and goose or duck fat for high-heat oven cooking
Choose butter over margarine wherever possible on toast, in sandwiches, in baking and serving with cooked vegetables
Eat eggs often, with the yolks
Avoid no fat or low fat dairy foods, full fat is better and also lower in carbohydrates (which tend to be the main driver of many health and weight problems)
If dietary preferences allow, include some top quality red meat in your diet each week, avoiding the lean cuts. Do try to go for organic and grass-fed meat when you can, so the fat is as ‘clean’ and healthy as possible.