Butter, bacon, steak…. all of these foods can be good for you? Say whaaat?
It’s true! These foods have been demonized in the past due to their high content of saturated fat. However, our bodies actually need a balance of BOTH saturated and unsaturated fats for optimal health. Read on to learn why saturated fat has received such as bad rep in the health industry, and how this has led to an epidemic of misdiagnosed health issues, over-prescribing of medications, and inappropriate diet recommendations. Plus, I’m also going to explain why saturated fat is good for you and the right way to incorporate saturated fat into your diet.
What is saturated fat?
A saturated fat is a type of fat in which the fatty acid chains have all single bonds (the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms, hence the name). Saturated fats tend to have higher melting points than unsaturated fats, which is why saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid.
Saturated fat is also the most stable of all fats, which makes it great for cooking. Cooking with high heat with oils that contain fragile fats like omega-3s, omega-6s, and monounsaturated fats can be inflammatory because these fats break down when you expose them to heat. Saturated fats maintain their integrity, even when you heat them to roughly 400 degrees F.
What does saturated fat do for your body?
Moderate amounts of high-quality, organic saturated fats from grass-fed/grass-finished meats, butter, and ghee, or plant-based sources such as coconut oil, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, can offer big benefits to the body. Below are the top five benefits of saturated fat.
1. Brain health
Saturated fats are essential to keeping your cell membranes strong. In fact, saturated fat makes up nearly 50% of all cell membranes in your body, and the majority of fats in your brain are saturated. Eating a diet that is low in saturated fat deprives your brain of the building blocks it needs to grow, regenerate, and stay healthy.
2. Nervous System health
Saturated fats are necessary to maintain a healthy nervous system, the network of nerve cells and fibers which transmits nerve impulses between parts of the body. A blog post on The Model Health Show uses this analogy: “Think of saturated fat as the “insulation” coating for your nervous system (aka your internal wiring). When you lack this insulation you become more susceptible to external and internal stress. Certain saturated fats even function as signaling messengers themselves.” Thus, a diet with little or not saturated fat can cause poor communication between the cells of your body, and resulting in pretty big problems.
3. Cardiovascular health
Saturated fats improve the quality of your LDL, reduce levels of lipoprotein(a), and certain saturated fats (i.e. lauric acid and stearic acid) can help regulate cholesterol levels. But wait - doesn’t saturated fat cause heart disease? The next section below is all about why this is simply NOT TRUE!
4. Bone health
Saturated fat is necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bone. Without fat, your bones will be weak. And with poor bone density comes increased risk of degeneration and injury.
5. Immune health
When white blood cells don’t have sufficient saturated fats, their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, and fungi is impaired.
Doesn’t saturated fat cause heart disease?
Beginning in the 1960s, saturated fat was demonized for two main reasons: the work of scientist Ancel Keys and the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF). Ancel Keys had done some preliminary research about a possible link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. Being charismatic and politically savvy, Keys confidently presented this preliminary research while publicly mocking any hypothesis that contradicted his own. His research was also very flawed, for example, he combined poorly designed studies with misguided statistical analysis and heralded his findings as the absolute truth. Other researchers pointed out these flaws almost immediately, but they didn’t get enough attention to stop the misinformation from being spread.
The Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) is a major lobbyist group for the sugar industry that was also researching heart disease during the 1950s and 1960s. The SRF wanted to "refute" concerns about sugar's possible role in heart disease, so they sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding. The research downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease and promoted saturated fat as its cause instead.
You may be wondering about other studies that have found a link between saturated fat and heart disease. Well, it’s worth noting where most Americans that are included in these studies get their saturated fat (i.e. pizza, ice cream, grain-based desserts like cookies and cake, processed meat, etc.) So, in studies that have found a link between saturated fat and heart disease, is it the saturated fat itself? Or is it the fact that the saturated fat is coming from processed junk food, like pizza, ice cream, cookies, cake, and candy?
According to an article on the Bulletproof blog, in the last ten years, 4 large-scale independent review articles (one including data from more than half a million participants) found no link between saturated fat and heart disease.
While studies show that saturated fat raises LDL (your so-called “bad” cholesterol), it improves the QUALITY of the LDL, causing a beneficial shift in the types of LDL-particles, from small, dense LDL particles (the kind that are correlated with heart disease in some studies) to higher numbers of larger LDL particles (which are not harmful and can be useful metabolically). Saturated fat also raises HDL (“good” cholesterol).
Why you need just the right amount of cholesterol
As I just mentioned above, saturated fat WILL raise your total cholesterol. This is a good thing because it improves the quality of LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol.
In conventional medicine, when someone has high cholesterol, they are often immediately prescribed a statin (a type of medication used to lower cholesterol, such as Lipitor and Crestor) and are told to avoid foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol. But is high cholesterol really the problem? According to Dr. Stephen Sinatra, the author of The Cholesterol Myth, only half of the patients hospitalized for heart disease actually have high cholesterol. In fact, more current research doesn’t even support the idea that high levels of cholesterol contribute to heart disease.
The real culprit… damaged arteries and chronic inflammation.
You see, one of the most important roles of cholesterol in the body is to heal and repair. It has to be present in order for new cells to be made. And inflammation is a reaction to injury or infection in the body meant to also heal and repair. In a generally healthy body, when there is an injury, inflammation is triggered, which then communicates to the liver to release more cholesterol into the blood to help repair the injury site. The cholesterol works to cover the site and form a scar or “plaque” as a way to repair the injury.
Now here is where the confusion comes in… when the body is under constant attack and in a state of chronic inflammation (due to toxins, excessive sugar intake, etc.) cholesterol is always busy forming these “scars” trying to repair the injuries leading to elevated cholesterol levels in the blood and an accumulation of plaque. So say a patient suffers a heart attack, in conventional medicine, when a physician sees high levels of cholesterol circulating in their bloodstream afterwards, they conclude that it — not the underlying damage to the arteries — is the cause of heart attack. When in fact, its intention was to HELP repair the damage to the arteries.
This kind of conclusion often results in physicians prescribing statins and other unnecessary medication, along with a diet with little to no saturated fat or cholesterol. The problem with that is, they are not addressing the issue of inflammation and now there will be less healthy fat and cholesterol to help repair. In addition, lowering cholesterol levels too much can lead to disruption in healing, Vitamin D production, the making of important hormones, and a number of other factors.
The final verdict: saturated fat is GOOD for you!
Overall, eating a balanced diet that includes both saturated AND unsaturated fats from high quality sources is key for optimal health. Saturated fat is necessary for your brain, nervous system, immune system, bones, and even your cardiovascular system. Saturated fat improves the quality of your LDL cholesterol and raises HDL cholesterol. Below are some of the best sources of saturated fat from both animal and plant sources:
Animal sources of saturated fat
Grass fed/grass-finished meats
Grass fed butter or ghee
Plant sources of saturated fat
Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46.