For decades, we’ve been told that saturated fat is the enemy, and that to keep our cholesterol levels down and our arteries clear, we need to steer clear of red meat, egg yolks, and milk.
Saturated fat’s bad rap is mostly based on a study called the ‘Seven Countries Study’ by scientist Ancel Keys, which identified a link between dietary fat, serum cholesterol levels, and heart disease after looking at the dietary patterns of countries around the world, and prompted many organizations to begin recommending low-fat diets with minimal amounts of saturated fat in an effort to prevent heart disease. Though many of us are still under the impression that saturated fat is unhealthy, this initial evidence used to justify these claims is incredibly flawed. Keys actually studied more than 20 countries, but chose to only include seven, skewing the resulting data.
In recent years, however, a growing body of research has proven that saturated fats may not be so bad after all. Although some studies suggest that swapping out saturated fats for unsaturated fats in your diet may protect against heart disease, other evidence shows that saturated fat does not cause heart disease, as was once assumed.
Furthermore, certain types of saturated fat can actually improve several aspects of health, with benefits ranging from lowering cholesterol to increasing insulin sensitivity and beyond. Here’s what you should know.
The Different Types of Saturated Fat
There are many types of saturated fatty acids found in the diet, and each has unique effects on health. They are generally categorized as short, medium, or long-chain fatty acids based on the number of carbon atoms they contain, and are absorbed and metabolized in the body in different ways.
Long-Chain Fatty Acids
Palmitic acid is the most common type of saturated fat in the diet and was once estimated to account for over half of the total saturated fat intake in the United States. Found primarily in palm oil, red meat, and dairy, palmitic acid has actually been shown to increase levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol in some studies. However, these studies look at the effects of isolated palmitic acid, an ingredient most of us don’t exactly have sitting on our kitchen counters. In food sources, palmitic acid is usually found in combination with other types of fatty acids, which may actually help minimize its effects on cholesterol, research suggests.
After palmitic acid, stearic acid is the second most commonly consumed type of saturated fat. It’s believed to be one of the healthiest saturated fats, with research indicating that it can actually lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Although most commonly found in animal fats, stearic acid is also found in plant products, including coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter.
Medium-Chain Fatty Acids
Compared to longer-chain fatty acids, medium-chain fatty acids (a.k.a. MCTs)—which include caproic, capric, and caprylic acid, to name a few—differ in the way they are absorbed and processed in the body. Instead of being metabolized and transformed in the intestines like long-chain fatty acids, they are rapidly broken down and sent straight to the liver, where they can be converted into fuel. Because of this, studies show that MCTs can help increase insulin sensitivity to keep blood sugar in check and promote weight loss. Supplements like MCT oil provide a concentrated amount of medium-chain fatty acids, but plant sources like coconut oil and palm kernel oil also supply a good amount.
One medium-chain fatty acid, lauric acid, has been associated with a number of health benefits. It’s been shown to increase levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol in the blood, which can help optimize heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease, and also has powerful immune-boosting properties, which can provide protection against harmful pathogens. The richest natural sources of lauric acid include palm kernel oil and coconut oil, both of which are made up of over 40 percent lauric acid.
Short-Chain Fatty Acids
Other less common types of saturated fatty acids include butyric acid, propionic acid, and acetic acid, all of which are found in relatively small amounts scattered throughout our diet (in foods like ghee, raw milk. and parmesan cheese). Certain types of short-chain fatty acids are also produced within the colon when dietary fiber is fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Short-chain fatty acids have been associated with a number of health benefits in animal studies, ranging from increased fat-burning to enhanced insulin sensitivity, giving you all the more reason to get in your daily dose of fiber!
Saturated Fats And A Healthy Diet
When consumed along with plenty of fruits, vegetables and wholesome sources of protein, a few servings of saturated fats—one serving is an ounce of feta cheese or a tablespoon of coconut oil—per day can absolutely fit into a healthy diet, and can even help bump up fat intake on diet plans like the ketogenic diet. However, that doesn’t mean you should start loading up on the bacon and processed meat. In fact, the most recent Dietary Guidelines still recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories, and unhealthy sources of fat coming from heavily-refined vegetable oils, processed meat, processed junk food, and fried foods should be limited as much as possible to minimize the risk of heart disease as well as other chronic conditions, like cancer.
And just because saturated fat is back on the table doesn’t mean you should forget about other healthy fats! Unsaturated fats, like extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, and omega-3-rich foods like fish, nuts, and seeds, boast plenty of health-promoting properties and can also be nutritious additions to your diet. On an average day, I try to include a good variety of both saturated and unsaturated fats in my diet to get in my fix of healthy fats. Some of my favorite sources include grass-fed butter, coconut oil, almonds, chia seeds, and wild-caught salmon.
Keep your saturated fat facts straight with this handy infographic:
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.