For years, saturated fat has been vilified and maligned for being a contributor to heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet that limits saturated fat to less than 7% of total calories. Despite these recommendations, based on recent research, saturated fat MAY not be as unhealthy as originally thought and that not all saturated fats have the same effects on the body.
Most sources lump saturated fats into a single category and label all of them as bad. In reality, all saturated fats are not created equal. Most people think you only find saturated fats in meat and dairy products like red meat, butter, and cheese. Not so. In fact, one source of plant-based saturated fat, coconut oil, is being labeled as a superfood by some nutritionists. To make matters more confusing, some nutritionists and health experts, based on recent research, now question whether saturated fats contribute to heart disease risk at all. What’s the story with saturated fat?
What is Saturated Fat?
Fats, in general, come in three different varieties based on their structure: saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat. They’re all made up of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule and have a similar number of calories, 9 calories per gram, making fat more energy dense than carbohydrates and protein that have a calorie content of 4 calories per gram. The attached fatty acids are composed of long chains of carbons with hydrogens attached. In saturated fats, the attached fatty acids are fully “saturated” with hydrogens, meaning there are no double bonds between the carbons. In contrast, the fatty acids in monounsaturated fats have a single double bond. Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond separating the carbons from one another.
From a practical standpoint, what distinguishes saturated fat from polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fats is saturated forms of fat are usually solid at room temperature. Most cooking oils contain mostly polyunsaturated fats and are a liquid form, as you know if you’ve ever purchased one of these products at the grocery store. Olive oil contains both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. In reality, foods and oils, whether derived from a plant or an animal, are a mixture of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. Animal-based fats that are solids at room temperature usually have a saturated fat content of 40 to 60%.
Foods with large quantities of saturated fat include butter, lard, cheese and meat, foods that doctors still recommend eating in limited quantities based on American Heart Association guidelines. There are exceptions to the rule that saturated fats are solids at room temperature. Palm oil and coconut oils, plant-based sources of saturated fat, are semi-solids at room temperature, despite being quite high in saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil is over 90% saturated fat.
Animal and Plant-Based Saturated Fat
For years, saturated fats were lumped into a single category, fats that cause heart disease. The reason? Studies showed that diets rich in saturated fats raise total cholesterol, including the “bad” form called LDL-cholesterol. People usually think all sources of saturated fat, including plant-based ones like coconut oil and palm oil are heart unhealthy. Preliminary research suggests that plant-based saturated fats, especially coconut oil, are handled differently by the body and may have health benefits that animal-based saturated fats don’t. Even animal-based saturated fats differ in their effects. The saturated fatty acid stearic acid, found in chocolate, doesn’t raise LDL-cholesterol like other forms of animal-based saturated fat.
What makes coconut oil different? Most of the fatty acids that make up animal-based saturated fats like red meat and cheese are long-chain fatty acids with long chains of carbons. In contrast, medium-chain fats, like those that make up over half the fat in coconut oil, are shorter in length. As a result, your body handles them differently.
Most long-chain fatty acids from animal sources are absorbed by your intestinal tract and attached to special carrier proteins undergoing the journey through your bloodstream and to your liver. Medium-chain fats from sources like coconut oil take a short-cut. They travel directly to the liver where they can be rapidly used for energy. In a way, they behave like a carbohydrate, serving as a readily available energy source.
Some sources say that coconut oil, with its medium-chain fats, provides a metabolic boost that helps with fat burning. As such, it may be beneficial for weight control. They also point out that cultures that eat a lot of coconut oil have lower rates of heart disease. Of course, this isn’t proof that coconut oil and medium-chain fats are completely harmless from a cardiovascular standpoint. Most studies show coconut oil raises LDL-cholesterol, although some show it also raises HDL-cholesterol, the heart-healthy form of cholesterol that may protect against heart disease. Because it goes directly to the liver and is less likely to be stored as fat, it may be a better choice than other forms of saturated fat – but use it in moderation. Look for cold-pressed coconut oil that’s unrefined.
The Bottom Line?
Saturated fat may not be the evil demon it’s often portrayed as and some forms of saturated fat, like medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil, may have health benefits that animal-based forms of saturated fat don’t. On the other hand, don’t go overboard with coconut oil and make it your “go to” oil. There’s still evidence that coconut oil raises LDL-cholesterol. A better choice for low-temperature cooking is olive oil. With its abundance of monounsaturated fats, it’s a clear winner when it comes to heart health.
The evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease is weakening based on the results of some recent research. It may turn out that saturated fats aren’t as bad as originally believed and that plant-based ones like coconut oil have some health benefits. Saturated fats and oils like coconut oils have the advantage of being more stable and less likely to become rancid or form free radicals when you store or heat them, like polyunsaturated fats. Until more is known, use olive oil for low-temperature cooking and moderate amounts of coconut oil for cooking at higher temperatures.
Harvard School of Public Health. “Top Food Sources of Saturated Fat in the U.S.”
PubMed Health. “Saturated fats and heart disease link ‘unproven'” March, 2014.
NYU Langone Medical Center. “Medium-Chain Triglycerides”
American Heart Association.
Health Hub. “Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Which is Heart-healthier?”
WebMD. “Saturated Fats Not So Bad? Not So Fast, Critics of New Analysis Say” March 2014.
Am J Clin Nutr. 1994 Dec;60(6 Suppl):986S-990S.
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