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You Ask, I Answer: What Is Up With Saturated Fats?

40709058coconutI know that unsaturated fats are very good for us. I know that trans fats should be avoided at all costs. I know that saturated fat isn’t so hot for us, but I’m not sure to what degree.

Although there is a certain percentage of daily intake allowance for saturated fat, should one try to limit that as close to zero as possible?

– Mackenzie (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Wonderful question!  The answer isn’t super straight-forward, so I recommend re-reading it once or twice.

The first thing you need to know is that “saturated fat” is an all-encompassing term for many different types of saturated fats.

Saturated fats differ from one another depending on the amount of carbons they contain.  In nutrition circles, this is referred to as their “chain length.”

When you examine saturated fats individually, varying properties pop up.

Lauric acid — found in high amounts in coconuts — is a saturated fat that, like all saturated fats, increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.  However, it also increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol!

Similarly, stearic acid — predominantly found in chocolate — is unique in that a good chunk of it is converted by our bodies into a monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid.

In fact, stearic acid has less of a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol levels than other types of saturated fat.

Then there’s palmitic acid.  This saturated fat — found in plentiful amounts in beef and butter — has been found to substantially increase the risk of atherosclerosis (that’s medical jargon for “clogged arteries”).

Myristic acid, found mainly in dairy fat, has also been shown to negatively impact HDL levels.

One of the issues with saturated fats, though, is that they are usually coupled together in food.

For example, coconuts contain a fair amount of lauric acid, but they also contain palmitic acid.

Similarly, foods high in heart-healthy fats (like olive oil and its monounsaturated fats or wild salmon and its omega-3 polyunsaturated fats) also contain some saturated fats.

A tablespoon of olive oil, for instance, provides 14 grams of total fat, of which 9.8 grams are monounsaturated and 1.98 are saturated.

This helps explain why the guidelines for saturated fat are not to completely shun them (as they are with trans fats), but rather to keep them below a certain amount.

Unless you go on an extremely low-fat diet (which I do NOT recommend), it would be impossible to keep saturated fat intake very low.

Since the standard US diet is so absurdly high in omega-6 fatty acids — a phenomenon that has been shown to cause its own share of problems — I would much rather someone consume saturated fat (without surpassing daily recommendations) than attempt to get it as low as possible and consume omega-6 fatty acids in its place.

Let’s conclude with my fat suggestions:

  • Prioritize monounsaturated and omega-3 fats in your diet.
  • When it comes to saturated fats, try to consume them mainly from unsweetened coconut (which also offers fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals), unsweetened cocoa/cacao (which also offers a good share of phytonutrients — here’s a great recipe that calls for it; here is another delicious one), and as part of healthier fats (i.e: olive oil, salmon, nuts, seeds).  Be sure to stay within designated limits.
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7 Comments

  1. Corey said on July 29th, 2009

    Thanks. This is interesting.

  2. Mackenzie said on July 29th, 2009

    Thanks so much for answering my question! I really appreciate not only your answering, but your thoroughness and promptness as well.

  3. Andy Bellatti said on July 29th, 2009

    My pleasure, Mackenzie. Thanks for visiting!

  4. US Food Trends said on July 29th, 2009

    Do you have any references – controlled, published, human studies – to back up these claims? :

    “palmitic acid. This saturated fat — found in plentiful amounts in beef and butter — has been found to substantially increase the risk of atherosclerosis”

    “Myristic acid, found mainly in dairy fat, has also been shown to negatively impact HDL levels.”

    I ask because I’ve done a few Google Scholar searches and haven’t found anything.

    Thanks!

  5. Andy Bellatti said on July 29th, 2009

    Here you go:

    1) http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/63/6/897

    2) http://www.lipidsonline.org/news/article.cfm?aid=4014

    3) http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v62/n5/abs/1602756a.html

    4) http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/142/5/469?ck=nck

    5) http://atvb.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/14/4/567

    6) http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v53/n8/abs/1600815a.html

    7) http://books.google.com/books?id=MlA_OpfsFegC&pg=PA362&lpg=PA362&dq=myristic+acid+dietary&source=bl&ots=Y5J44FH4A2&sig=-rtGtHYEQSgdBM4SnN3MFY6BklY&hl=en&ei=ahVxSp_qIIaEtgfv47WoDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7

  6. Corey Clark said on August 12th, 2009

    Okay, so coconut isn’t so bad. But any particular kind? Coconut milk/oil/flakes?

  7. Andy Bellatti said on August 14th, 2009

    I recommend adding some shredded unsweetened coconut to trail mixes, or even sprinkling some into smoothies or over cereal.

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