The consumption of saturated fatty acids and their potential impact on overall health, particularly heart disease, has become a controversial topic. Previously, it was considered the worst type of fat, but trans fats have since taken on that role.
So, what’s the deal with saturated fatty acids? Here’s what we know:
- Replacing saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids can bring health benefits.
- Current research suggests that saturated fats are better for us than trans fats.
In the world of dietary fats, saturated fatty acids are stuck in the middle. So how does it fit into a healthy diet?
What is Saturated Fat?
With their single bonds and straight chains, saturated fat molecules can pack tightly together, like bricks in a wall. This dense packing creates a strong internal structure, resulting in a higher melting point and a solid state at room temperature.
„Saturated fats are fully saturated (filled) with hydrogen molecules and contain only single bonds between carbon molecules,“ explains Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU. „Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond between carbon molecules. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, unlike unsaturated fats like olive oil, which are more liquid at room temperature.“
Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal-based foods such as beef, lamb, and pork, but also in high-fat dairy products like butter, cheese, and baked goods.
It has regained the spotlight, especially due to the keto diet, where people limit carbohydrate intake and increase their fat intake in hopes of training their bodies to burn fat instead of glucose (carbohydrates) for energy and accelerate weight loss.
But not all fats are the enemy they were once thought to be. Olive oil and avocados, for example, are extremely healthy. It’s also important to note that dietary fat does not make you gain weight. And although your body doesn’t need saturated fat, it does need fat for various reasons, such as vitamin absorption and other metabolic processes.
Your body needs the two essential fatty acids that make up your body fats and cannot produce on its own:
- Alpha-linolenic acid
- Linoleic acid
These fats are both found in unsaturated fats, also known as „healthy fats.“
Have Views on Saturated Fatty Acids Changed?
For decades, it was believed that consuming saturated fatty acids—imagine again the lovely image of something solid at room temperature—could clog arteries and potentially cause heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
There is much controversy among scientists and doctors/nutritionists about how harmful saturated fatty acids really are. However, that’s not a license to go overboard.
„Whether saturated fat increases disease risk is currently controversial,“ says Young. „Regardless, a little is okay, but in my opinion, no more than the recommendation.“
She explains, „Dietary guidelines for Americans, including the latest Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report for the 2020–2025 guidelines, suggest aiming for a dietary pattern where no more than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fatty acids. The American Heart Association even recommends less.“
What this means:
- According to the dietary guidelines, in a 2,000-calorie diet, only 200 calories should come from saturated fatty acids. That’s approximately 20 grams.
- If you need to lower your cholesterol levels, the American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fatty acid intake to five to six percent of your daily calorie intake. That’s no more than 100 to 120 calories from saturated fatty acids (or a maximum of 13 grams).
Is Saturated Fat Actually Unhealthy?
According to Young, saturated fats are unhealthy and therefore should be limited. „Consuming foods high in saturated fats (red meat, butter, cheese) raises blood cholesterol levels,“ she says. „High LDL cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.“
Should I Include Saturated Fatty Acids in My Diet?
You’ve probably heard a lot about adding „healthy fats“ to your diet. Saturated fat is not that.
„Healthy fats“ are unsaturated fats. They are associated with a range of benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease. So, skip the butter and cheese and instead eat fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
Whatever you do, don’t replace saturated fatty acids with processed foods or simple carbohydrates. „Avoiding saturated fats and replacing them with refined carbohydrates is not healthy,“ says Young. „Choosing unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats, however, has the potential to lead to better health outcomes.“
The Bottom Line
Despite some controversial studies, research tends to lean towards limiting the intake of saturated fatty acids from food. This is because saturated fatty acids may potentially increase cholesterol levels.
You can enjoy saturated fatty acids in moderation. As mentioned above, up to 10% of your total calories can come from saturated fatty acids. However, eat less if you have risk factors for heart disease. And remember, your body does not need saturated fat, meaning you don’t have to add it to your diet.