The messaging around saturated fat has been that it is unhealthy.
You’ve been told that it sends your cholesterol level up and it contributes to an increased risk of developing heart disease.
But new research is telling us that things aren’t actually that simple and the situation is more complicated than that.
In this blog I’m going to give you a run-down on saturated fat and whether or not it’s good or bad for you.
WHAT IS SATURATED FAT?
It’s a type of fat under the larger umbrella of the macronutrient “fat”.
Macronutrients are nutrients in our diet that we consume in large amounts that give us energy.
Fat gives us 9 calories of energy per gram.
A single fat molecule is made up of one glycerol molecule and 3 fatty acids. It is these fatty acids that are either saturated or unsaturated.
The saturation is referring to the number of double chemical bonds in the fatty acids.
Saturated fats have NO double bonds, monounsaturated fats have ONE double bond and polyunsaturated fats have TWO or MORE double bonds.
As you can see in this picture, the saturated fat has all of its carbon (c) atoms fully “saturated” with hydrogen (H) atoms.
WHICH FOODS HAVE SATURATED FAT IN THEM?
Almost all foods contain saturated fat in some amount. It is important to note that fat in food is made up of a combination of different fatty acids.
No food’s fat content is just saturated fat or just mono or polyunsaturated fat.
Foods that are highest in saturated fat are animal-based foods like meats and dairy products as well as foods containing coconut, palm oil and cocoa butter.
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WHY HAVE WE BEEN TOLD IT’S BAD FOR US?
Beginning in the 1950s in America there was a sharp increase in the incidence of heart disease. Early studies by Ancel Keys, Frederick Stare, and Mark Hegstead lead to the adoption of the belief that dietary fat was a major contributor1.
The researchers found that people eating a diet high in saturated fat had higher levels of cholesterol in their blood. They then paired this with the fact they already knew that having high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease to make the following assumption:
If saturated fat make cholesterol levels high, and high cholesterol levels cause heart disease, then saturated fat must cause heart disease.
This assumption was then turned into public policy in the 1970s and as they say, the rest is history.
With evidence now suggesting that saturated fat alone doesn’t cause heart disease, most scientists and health professionals agree that saturated fat isn’t as unhealthy as it has been made out to be.
While its exact role in heart disease is still being investigated and debated, here is what we’ve found out so far.
It is now clear that it is the quality of the overall diet that influences heart health, not just one nutrient or food.
There are many eating patterns that are associated with having a healthy heart, but the one I recommend and follow myself is the Mediterranean “diet”.
WHAT IS THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET?
Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
Eat a variety of healthy protein sources, especially oily fish like salmon, rainbow trout, sardines and herring 3 times a week.
Eat legumes twice a week.
Consume 30-40 grams of natural, unsalted nuts and seeds daily.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein in the diet (only people with type 2 diabetes are advised to consume fewer than 7 eggs per week).
Choose lean, red meat (beef, lamb, pork) 1-3 times a week and keep your portions in check. Limit red meat consumption to no more than 350 grams per week.
Choose unflavoured milk, natural yoghurts and cheese. Only those people with high levels of blood cholesterol need to choose reduced-fat varieties.
When cooking, use the oils from nuts, seeds, avocados and olives for cooking.
BUTTER OR MARGARINE?
And finally, the one question that I regularly get asked, “Butter or margarine? Which is better?”
Butter is made by churning the cream from cow’s milk. Given that the cream is the fatty part of the milk, it’s mostly made up of saturated fat.
Margarine is a butter alternative made from vegetable oils, which mostly contain unsaturated fats. Since vegetable oils are naturally liquid at room temperature, the process of making margarine changes the chemical structure of vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature.
While butter is higher in saturated fat (50%) and margarine is a rich source of unsaturated fats, it can sometimes contain trans fats as a result of this change in chemical structure. Trans fats can raise the risk of chronic disease.
If you prefer margarine over butter, just make sure you’re choosing one with less than 1% trans fats (<1g per 100g) and choose one that is made from healthy plant oil, like olive oil. And don’t choose the cheap varieties – they will have more trans fats. When it comes to buying margarine it is definitely a case of buying more expensive means better quality.
If the butter is your favourite, then just go for the good ol’ fashioned butter where there is only two ingredients – cream and salt.
There really is no clear winner between these two, so whatever you choose just make sure you consume in small amounts.