Should You Avoid Saturated Fat?

by | Aug 27, 2021 | Nutrition, Real Food

Image: Shutterstock

Two comprehensive studies concluded that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat or high-fibercarbohydrates is likely to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Thirty years ago, the fat in your food was thought to be an enemy of your health, and low-fat diets were all the rage. Currently the pendulum has swung to the other side, with the trendy ketogenic diet having as much as 70% of calories from fat.

What is the real deal with fat?

The first thing to understand about fat is that it is an essential nutrient. The fat in the food you eat (which is called dietary fat to differentiate it from the fat in your body) is a major source of energy. It is also used to make the membranes that surround your cells and the protective covering that surrounds your nerves. Fat is also necessary for blood clotting and muscle movement.

Dietary fats are divided into four categories:

  1. Saturated – red meat, whole milk, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil, and some baked goods
  2. Polyunsaturated – walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax, fish
  3. Monounsaturated – olive oil, peanut oil, avocados, most nuts
  4. Trans Fat—margarines, vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

The current food label lists the total fat in a typical serving of food, and specifically lists the amount of saturated fat and trans-fat.

Trans-fats are listed because it is well established that artificial trans-fats are harmful. Although the FDA mostly banned them in 2015, they are still on the label because they are found naturally in some animal products, and artificial trans fats are still allowed in small amounts (yikes!). But why list saturated fat?

There was a time when it was thought consumption of saturated fat contributed to heart disease. Recently, researchers have reevaluated that relationship, and an analysis of 21 studies found that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease.

That said, two other comprehensive studies concluded that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat or high-fibercarbohydrates is likely to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Why don’t all studies have the same results? There are many things you would have to control to make the results of different diets truly comparable. For example, what was the source of the polyunsaturated fats that the saturated fats were replaced with, compared with the sources of the saturated fats in the analysis of many studies? We don’t know.

Why does that matter? Because the unsaturated fat in the food you eat might be a form of fat found in nature, or it might be the form of fat produced in food manufacturing facilities. That manufacturing process results in fats that are quite different than those found in nature: Fats that have been heated to high temperatures, bleached, and steamed, with various components removed because they are considered to be undesirable for one reason or another.1 Such fats are called “refined.”

If you do feel there’s a reason to reduce your consumption of saturated fats, and you want to replace them with unsaturated fats or other macronutrients like carbohydrates and proteins, keep this in mind: in terms of health, the types of macronutrients in your food are less important than the degree to which they have been processed. Eggs, nuts, avocados, fish, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil (which get no chemical or heat treatment prior to arriving at the grocery store) are all healthy sources of fat while also containing an abundance of other natural nutrients.

That’s the real deal with fat.

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

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The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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