Saturated Fats: The Good and The Bad
Learn about the effects of eating saturated fats and how to choose the right sources of saturated fat in your diet.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not medical advice. A low carb diet may not be suitable for you. Consult your health care provider before making any changes to your lifestyle or use at your own risk.
Saturated fats are one of the most controversial topics in health and nutrition. They often get a bad rap for being associated with elevated cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart disease. In this article, we explain why this is not true for all saturated fats and go into detail about the different types of saturated fats and how they affect your health.
What Are Saturated Fats?
All fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In addition, fat molecules all contain two components: glycerin and fatty acids. When we consume fats, our digestive systems break down the bonds between the fatty acids, which are the nutritionally important part of fat molecules. The type of chemical bonds in the fatty acid chains is also the main way to distinguish different types of fats. Fats can be classified into three main types: saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats.
Saturated fats contain fatty acid chains that are held together with single bonds, whereas unsaturated fats and trans fats contain double bonds. These differences in chemical structures change the way our bodies process fats and how each type of fat reacts to heat. In general, the single bonds found in saturated fats are the most stable because they have the maximum number of bonded hydrogen atoms (unbonded hydrogen atoms are more likely to react and bond with other atoms). This gives saturated fats longer shelf lives and makes them the best choices for cooking.
If this chemical explanation confuses you, there are other ways to identify different types of fats! For example, foods high in saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature. In addition, saturated fats are found most abundantly in animal sources (such as butter, cheese and meat) although they can also be found in tropical plant-based oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. On the other hand, unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature and are usually found in plant sources (such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados). Most trans fats are artificially created during a process called hydrogenation, which makes liquid vegetable oils more solid and stable at high temperatures. This is why you will find trans fats in fast food and anything else that has been fried, processed or refined. However, trans fats can also occur naturally in meat and dairy in small amounts.
The Health Effects of Saturated Fats
Since the 1950s, saturated fats were widely believed to be a major driver of heart disease in the Western world to due high consumption of meat and dairy. Scientists claimed that all saturated fats increase levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in your body, which can clog arteries and reduce or block blood flow to the heart.
However, there is some disagreement among scientists on the topic of saturated fats today. Firstly, health experts recognize that there is not one single type of saturated fat. Saturated fats can vary in chemical structure depending on the length of their fatty acid chains (ranging from short to medium, long, or very long), which all have different effects on our health. In general, the shorter chain saturated fatty acids have the largest effect on LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. However, these same short chain fatty acids can also increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol with the overall effect of raising total cholesterol levels. So, if you are watching your overall levels of cholesterol, it might be a good idea to limit your intake of things like dairy, fatty cuts of meat and tropical oils (note: palm oil, a type of tropical oil, is found in many packaged foods).
Secondly, the over-reliance on saturated fats as the main contributor to heart disease has distracted from the risks posed by other foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, and hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been strongly linked to obesity and diabetes. Finally, more recent studies have looked into the potential health benefits of foods high in saturated fats, namely coconut oil, and observed positive health effects in study participants.
It is worth mentioning that while saturated fats may not be as unhealthy as previously thought, they are still not the healthiest type of dietary fat available to us. Unsaturated fats, particularly those containing omega-3 fatty acids, are the best types of fats to consume. These can be found in things like olives, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, avocados, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna) and tofu. Omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, prevent inflammation and improve brain health. If you do not get enough of these foods from your diet, consider taking an omega-3 supplement for optimal health.
Different Types of Saturated Fats
Below, we will discuss how the most common food sources of saturated facts may affect your health.
A large portion of dairy fat is saturated fat, although full-fat dairy products such as butter, ghee, cheese, yogurt and milk also contain moderate levels of unsaturated fats. Small amounts of trans fats are also formed by bacteria in the stomachs of ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats, which make up 3-7% of the total fat in dairy products. While it is best to limit your intake of foods that contain trans fats, these natural forms of trans fats are likely the lesser evil compared to artificial trans fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils (used in restaurants).
Ensure that you are choosing grass-fed dairy products as much as possible. Grass-fed animals are much healthier compared to grain-fed animals, and as a result, their meat and dairy products contain more nutrients. Grass-fed beef and dairy have been shown to contain higher levels of healthy unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids and slightly less saturated fats. They also contain higher levels of Vitamin K2, which has been associated with improved artery health. Most people have never heard of Vitamin K, let alone think about consuming the right amount of it. This essential nutrient is extremely important for maintaining optimal heart health. It can also be found in leafy greens and egg yolks. Overall, the fat content in grass-fed dairy products won’t increase your risk of cardiovascular health and its unique nutrient profile may actually result in positive health effects.
All animal meat contains some amount of saturated fats. Meats containing the highest amounts of saturated fats include fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb, dark poultry meat (from legs and thighs) and poultry skin. Once again, you are better off choosing grass-fed, free-range and farm-raised cuts of meat to ensure the highest quality and most nutrients. While the fat on these cuts of meat isn’t necessarily unhealthy, you are better off buying lean cuts and opting for other sources of healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, salmon, nuts and seeds.
Egg yolks are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, containing all essential nutrients except for Vitamin C. Egg yolks are also the main source of fat in eggs, and contain both saturated and unsaturated fats. Due to the host of nutrients that you get from eating eggs, there is no need to omit them from your diet due to their saturated fat content. Once again, be sure to choose eggs that come from free-range, pasture-raised chickens. You can notice the signs of a high-quality egg such as a clean, uncracked shell and a thick, gelatinous yolk that is a vibrant orange colour and sits high.
Finally, saturated fats can be found in some plant foods such as tropical oils. These include coconut oil, MCT oil, palm kernel oil and palm oil. Like all fats, these oils contain various types of fatty acids, but are exceptionally high in saturated fats (as much as 92% of the total fat in coconuts is saturated fat). That said, the saturated fats found in these oils will not increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, extra virgin coconut oil has been linked to improved heart health because it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which raise levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. MCTs are absorbed directly into the blood and immediately transported to the liver to be converted into ketones, which our bodies can use as long-lasting fuel. This is why low carb and keto dieters are fans of MCT oil, because it can help them get into ketosis faster. Consuming MCT oil as part of a low carb diet can also help manage weight and type 2 diabetes, which can lower your risk for heart disease. When choosing coconut oil, be sure to buy extra virgin or virgin coconut oil as this indicates minimal refining and processing, which can strip the product of nutrients. We love Wild Tusker Organic Virgin Coconut Oil available in three sizes, including a new beauty size!
Palm kernel oil and palm oil are also safe to consume; however, production of these oils continues to be a major contributor to deforestation of the world’s rainforests. Although this is a topic for another article, always be sure to choose foods that are not only good for you, but also for our planet. Grass-fed animal products are another smart choice you can make for the environment and your body.
Healthy Low Carb High Fat Products
If this article has inspired you to make better choices about the types of fats you consume, check out some of our recommendations below!
- Good To Go Snack Bars with 13g or more of healthy plant-based fats per bar!
- Dang Bars – with 15-16g of plant-based fats and 9-10g of protein per bar, as well.
- Keto Bars made with simple ingredients such as coconuts and dark chocolate, providing 19-21g of healthy fats per bar.
- Nick’s Sticks 100% Grass-Fed Beef Jerky Snack Sticks
- Prasad Ayurveda Organic Ghee made from cream sourced from small Canadian family farms.
- Nuco Coconut Crunch Cereal and Coconut Wraps made from 100% organic coconuts.
- Indigo Organic MCT Oil made from USDA certified organic fresh coconuts.
The good and bad information of saturated fats always seems undetermined, but we hope that this article helped you gain some helpful insights on this confusing topic! If you would like to share your own thoughts or experiences, please head over to our Facebook and Instagram pages.
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