Saturated fat has gotten a bad rap in recent years, largely because those who study nutrition and public health blame it for everything from obesity to heart disease to cancer. But the truth is, eating too much saturated fat can actually be dangerous, if not downright deadly.
If you are looking for a great article to read on the dangers of saturated fat, you have come to the right place.For decades, the consumption of saturated fats was considered unhealthy and could lead to heart disease. This is primarily based on the experimental observation that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats lowers low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), and LDL cholesterol itself is associated with heart disease.
But is this damaging reputation justified?
More qualitative studies have shown that the effects of saturated fat on heart disease are much more complex. Factors such as individual response to saturated fat intake, dietary sources of saturated fat, and how the rest of the diet changes when someone increases their intake of saturated fat should be considered.
A recent paper by 19 leading researchers highlights these points and concludes that the data do not support the general advice to limit saturated fat consumption and that the problem is much more subtle than is often claimed. A similar article was also published in a leading cardiology journal in 2020.
The confusion is increased by the fact that most studies lump all sources of saturated fat together. This means that the saturated fat in a steak counts as much as the saturated fat in cookies, cakes or other baked goods that contain a combination of saturated fat, trans fat and sugar.
How can you understand all this? This guide outlines what is known about saturated fats, examines the scientific evidence for their role in health, and asks whether we should be concerned about the amount we eat.
Denial: The effects of food or nutrients on human health, such as. B. the development of heart disease, are incredibly difficult to study because heart disease and many other diseases develop over decades.
Therefore, researchers have had to rely on observational studies or short-term studies using surrogate markers of heart disease, such as B. LDL cholesterol, use. Although many guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat intake, most are based on low-quality epidemiological studies. There is therefore a great deal of uncertainty about the quantity of saturated fats in a person’s diet.
This guide is our attempt to summarize what is known. It is intended for adults who are concerned about saturated fat intake and their health, including their risk of heart disease or premature death. Discuss any changes in your lifestyle with your doctor. Full disclaimer
For more information and relevant research on related topics, see our guides on healthy fats, vegetable oils and cholesterol. See also our list of important scientific studies on heart disease, cholesterol and saturated fat.
First: What are saturated fats?
Fats (or fatty acids) are classified into saturated and unsaturated fatty acids based on their molecular structure. Each fatty acid contains a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fats do not have a double bond between the carbon chains, which allows more hydrogen atoms to be bonded to the carbon atoms. This means they are saturated with hydrogen. This structure makes them solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, contain at least one double bond between carbon atoms – note that in the figure there are fewer hydrogen atoms attached to the double bonded carbon atoms. This chain is now unsaturated with hydrogen atoms and remains liquid or semi-liquid at room temperature.
For more information, check out our guide on healthy fats with a low-carb diet.
Which foods contain saturated fats?
Saturated fats are found in both vegetable and animal products. The foods we eat contain a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. Although z. B. Olive oil, nuts and avocados are generally considered sources of unsaturated fat, but these foods also contain some saturated fat.
Here’s how much saturated fat is in some popular low-carb foods:
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) coconut oil: 13 grams
- 100 grams of pork belly: 10-12 grams
- 100 grams of rib eye: 8-12 grams
- 30 grams dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa): 7-9 grams
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) butter: 7 grams
- 1 oz (30 grams) cheese: 5-7 grams
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) tallow oil: 6 grams
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) of lard: 5 grams
- 1 ounce (30 grams) macadamia nuts: 4 grams
- 100 grams chicken drumsticks: 4 grams
- 1 medium avocado (200 grams): 4 grams
- 1 tablespoon (14 g) heavy cream: 4 g
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) olive oil: 2 grams
Keep in mind that many other healthy keto foods contain at least a small amount of saturated fat.
Saturated fats and health risks Findings to date
Recommendations to reduce saturated fat are based on studies showing 1) a causal relationship between saturated fat and LDL cholesterol and 2) a causal relationship between LDL cholesterol and coronary heart disease. However, there is no conclusive evidence for a direct link between saturated fat and heart disease.
Let’s take a closer look at what the systematic reviews of observational and controlled studies show about saturated fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease, other diseases and death from all causes.
- A 2009 meta-analysis of 28 cohort studies and 16 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) concluded: Available data from cohorts and randomized controlled trials are scarce and unreliable to make a statement and prove the effect of dietary fats on CHD risk.
- A meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies from 2010 found no association between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease.
- A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials found that there is no clear evidence for dietary recommendations to limit saturated fat intake and replace it with polyunsaturated fat.
- A 2015 meta-analysis of 17 observational studies found that saturated fat was not associated with cardiovascular disease, all-cause mortality, or other diseases.
- A 2017 meta-analysis of 7 cohort studies found no significant association between saturated fat intake and CHD mortality.
Two systematic reviews of clinical trials – considered the strongest and most robust evidence – have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can slightly reduce the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular events. However, this effect applied only to men and had no effect on all-cause or cardiovascular mortality. Other comprehensive studies of equal quality have not shown any benefit.
A Cochrane review of a 2020 RCT also showed a reduction in the incidence of cardiovascular events with a reduced intake of saturated fat, but this effect was modest. This study also found no difference in cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
An observational study of high-risk individuals in Italy, France and Scandinavia found a minimal association between saturated fat intake and increased carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT, an indicator of subclinical vascular disease). The hazard ratios were negligible at 1.1 and 1.2, respectively. However, once the authors corrected for age and gender, this relationship disappeared. The conclusion is that there is no evidence that the consumption of saturated fats leads to the progression of vascular diseases.
Mente and colleagues published the results of a large observational study that examined the dietary habits and lipid data of more than 100,000 people in 18 countries. Analysis of data from the PURE study showed that higher saturated fat intake was associated with beneficial effects on several heart disease risk factors, including higher HDL levels, lower triglyceride levels and, what appears to be the strongest predictor of heart disease risk, a lower ratio of ApoB (in LDL particles) to Apo A (in HDL particles). However, like many epidemiological studies, this study had significant shortcomings, including the lack of measurement of trans fatty acids and inadequate measurement of carbohydrate quality. In contrast to most epidemiological studies, where dietary data are collected sequentially.
As mentioned in the introduction, recent evidence has taught us that a much more nuanced approach is needed when considering the effects of saturated fat on the development of cardiovascular disease. The main nuances are discussed below.
The food or nutrient that replaces the saturated fat determines whether the transition is beneficial, neutral, or even harmful.
If you think back to the studies that reduced saturated fat consumption, what did they replace it with? Carbohydrates (e.g. refined grains), unsaturated fats or proteins? This is very important.
It is now clear that replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates does not increase the risk of heart disease, while replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats may do so. This nuance may explain some of the conflicting results from the meta-analyses.
There is no point in advising someone to limit their intake of saturated fats if they end up replacing them with sugary cereals and white bread.
Dietary sources of saturated fat
Several foods are rich sources of saturated fat, including red meat, butter, cheese and coconut oil. Most studies lump all sources of saturated fat together. This means that the saturated fats in cream are counted in the same way as in yoghurt or cheese.
Many foods, including meat and milk, contain other nutrients and non-nutrients that can affect your risk of heart disease, such as probiotics, magnesium, potassium and vitamin D. They also contain other types of fat.
For example, most beef products contain almost as much saturated fat as monounsaturated fat. Thus, although meat, yogurt and butter are relatively high in saturated fats, their effects on cardiovascular disease may differ due to these confounding factors.
Researchers report that myristic acid (a saturated fat found in many foods, such as coconut oil, palm oil, butter, cream, cheese and meat) has a greater effect on LDL and HDL cholesterol levels than most other saturated fats.
Similarly, a number of controlled studies show that cheese and butter have a totally different effect on LDL cholesterol levels. And observational studies have found that dairy fats, especially yogurt and cheese, protect against heart disease.
As leading scientists state in their 2020 review article, we need to discuss the health effects of specific foods rather than lumping them all together with saturated fat.
General power supply
As described above, the whole diet is important. Most people on a high-carb diet get their carbs from grains and refined sugars, which can be unhealthy. If a diet low in carbohydrates (but high in fat) helps them avoid unhealthy carbs and eat more non-starchy vegetables, that could be a health benefit.
Processed foods designed to replace naturally saturated fats with refined carbohydrates and sugars are rarely a healthier choice.
Most studies on diets high in saturated fats and human health have been conducted in the context of high carbohydrate consumption. Lipid (fat) metabolism changes dramatically when a person reduces carbohydrate intake, and it is possible that the effect of saturated fats on cholesterol differs in a potentially significant way when the baseline diet is low in carbohydrates.
Dietary guidelines assume that everyone responds to nutrients in the same way. As for saturated fats, new data shows that people’s response to changes in the amount of saturated fats in their diets varies widely. Both research and clinical experience show a different response in different people.
What does the saturated fat content of foods mean for the typical low calorie diet?
A person on a typical low-carb or keto diet may consume 30 grams or more of saturated fat per day, which is well above the level currently recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (about 22 grams per day) and the American Heart Association (13 grams).
Is this a problem? We don’t know for sure, but for many people, probably not. In general, the influence of a single nutrient on a particular outcome is very small.
It’s also important to consider all the other factors that can affect your risk of cardiovascular disease, and how an increase in saturated fat on a low-carb diet can affect that.
If z. B. Someone who followed a low-carb diet (which happens to be high in saturated fats) was able to lose 4.5 kg of weight, increase their blood sugar, and lower their blood pressure, so a small increase in LDL cholesterol is unlikely to result in a net increase in heart disease risk.
Weight loss studies using diets low in carbohydrates and high in fat (including saturated fats) have shown no significant change in average LDL cholesterol levels. On the contrary, they showed an overall reduction in the risk of heart disease.
However, about half of those on a low-carb diet have elevated LDL-C levels (although they lose a lot of weight on average), and a quarter have elevated levels of more than 30%. It is therefore important to take individual reactions into account.
Therefore, for many, if not most, people, increasing the intake of saturated fats as part of a healthy, low-carb diet will have little effect on the risk of heart disease.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the recommendation for saturated fat intake?
The recommendation for saturated fat intake is less than 10% of total daily calories.
How do you figure out saturated fat?
Saturated fat is a type of fat that has no double bonds in its molecules.
What are good saturated fats?
Examples of good saturated fats include coconut oil, palm oil, and butter.
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