Is Saturated Fat Bad and Unsaturated Good for You? Review + List
We need fat in addition to carbohydrates and proteins as a source of energy. However, one fat is not the other and they have different effects on our health.
Saturated fats have a bad reputation. They would cause heart and vascular disease. And if you think about that, that’s weird. We have been eating saturated fat (meat, eggs) for hundreds of thousands of years, while cardiovascular disease has only been an epidemic for a century. But what do we have to trust? Our common sense or the advice of The Nutrition Center?
I rely on science and searched it for you, I share my findings in this article.
What you will learn more about fats in this article:
- What types of fat there are
- What types of fat there are
- Which types are bad and good for you
- Why low-fat eating is not healthy
- What are the foods that contain healthy fats
What types of fat are there?
We can divide the fats into two main groups:
- Saturated fat
- Unsaturated fat
If you want to know if saturated fat is bad, or unsaturated fat is good for you, you can also scroll down straight to the summary. If you really want to know all the angles, I would advise you to read this article in its entirety.
It is not possible to avoid saturated fat altogether, as both fats will always be present in fatty foods. It is true that you have foods that are high in unsaturated fat while they are low in saturated fat. So you have an influence on the amount of saturated fat you eat.
The difference between the saturated and the unsaturated fat are the chemical bonds. Saturated fats are fatty acids without double bonds. Unsaturated fatty acids have at least one double bond.
Saturated fatty acids have a solid form at room temperature (usually) while unsaturated fatty acids are (usually) liquid.
Saturated fatty acids are found in:
- Coconut oil
- Cocoa butter
- Palm oil
- All foods in which the above foods are processed
The following fatty acids are saturated fatty acids:
- Arachidic acid
- Behenic acid
- Butyric acid
- Caproic acid
- Caprylic acid
- Capric acid
- Lauric acid
- Myristic acid
- Palmitic acid
- Stearic acid
Many people have grown up with the idea that saturated fats are extremely unhealthy and that you should avoid them at all times. Yet saturated fats are necessary to stay healthy, we really would not be able to do without.
Saturated fats are the building blocks for many hormones that play a role in heart, liver and lung function and are necessary for nerve signal processing and keeping our immune system strong. Saturated fatty acids also form the building blocks for the cell membrane.
Saturated fatty acids are also required for the transport of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K2) and metabolic processes. These fatty acids also ensure the absorption of minerals.
Saturated fat and cholesterol
Yet saturated fatty acids have a bad name. It all started in the 70s of the last century. In 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, a connection was made between eating saturated fat and increased cholesterol.
Health organizations in other countries took over and manufacturers came on the market with low-fat nutrition.
The theory was that saturated fat increased the (bad) LDL cholesterol. Elevated LDL cholesterol is seen as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This theory has never been proven (source) but is nevertheless the recurring theme in many dietary recommendations by health organizations such as The Nutrition Center.
And since elevated LDL cholesterol is a marker for an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it seemed logical to eat less saturated fat.
Several studies have been conducted into the effect of saturated fat on cholesterol. However, the effect is weak and inconsistent and the investigations have methodological deficiencies.
If saturated fat really has such a big effect on cholesterol then you should be able to prove it easily. However, this is not the case up to now. The relationship between eating saturated fat and the rise of LDL cholesterol is therefore very debatable.
The story with cholesterol is that people with high cholesterol are more likely to have heart disease. This does not mean that cholesterol causes heart disease. Cholesterol is produced by the body to combat inflammation! High cholesterol can, therefore, be seen as a marker that there are problems (inflammation) somewhere in the body.
We also need cholesterol. For example, too low cholesterol is also associated with an increased risk of premature death.
Certain population groups eat an exceptionally large amount of saturated fat. Examples are the Masai (an African nomadic tribe) who drink a lot of full-fat milk and the population of some Polynesian islands that mainly eat coconut and derived products. These populations have healthy cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases do not occur
LDL cholesterol can be divided into two subclasses: small dense LDL (sdLDL) and large buoyant LDL.
It is the sdLDL cholesterol that is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Eating saturated fat causes a shift of sdLDL cholesterol particles to the LDL with larger particles (large buoyant LDL). This actually reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In addition, saturated fat provides an increase in good HDL cholesterol.
Cholesterol and low-fat diets
If fats are really that bad for us (like certain health organizations want you to believe) then you should see that in people who are on a low-fat diet. Yet?
In the past, low-fat diets were the method to lose weight. They are still being followed, but they are being replaced by low-carbohydrate diets that are currently in the upper hand.
The reason is that low-carbohydrate diets are many times more effective and more profitable for health. If you would like to know more about this, I would advise you to read my article about the low-carbohydrate diet.
By regularly measuring the blood levels of people who follow a low-fat diet, you can follow the effects on cholesterol. This has been done in several studies. These studies showed that the poor sdLDL in the blood increased in people who ate low fat. While this decreased in people who had a low-carbohydrate diet.
It is eating a lot of carbohydrates, which causes a rise in bad cholesterol, while low-fat eating causes a decrease in good HDL cholesterol.
From this, you may conclude that low-fat diets are bad for your cholesterol while low-carbohydrate diets are good for cholesterol.
Meta-analysis to saturated fat
Meta-analyzes are a nice method to search for links. The data from multiple studies and studies are thrown into one big heap.
A meta-analysis was conducted which collected data from 21 studies to look at the relationship between eating saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. The conclusion was that it could not be shown that eating saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. For this meta-analysis data were looked at of 348,000 participants who have been followed for 5 to 23 years.
The researchers of two other meta-analyzes came to the same conclusion.
Also in randomized controlled trails the researchers could not find evidence for an increased risk of cardiovascular disease for people who follow the Western diet compared to following a low-fat diet.
Health effects saturated fat
To be able to say something about the health effects of saturated fat, it is good to look at the different fatty acids separately. Every fatty acid has a different effect on health.
# 1: Health effects of palmitic acid
Palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid in our Western diet. About 55% of the saturated fats in our diet come from palmitic acid.
Palm oil is very rich in palmitic acid and it is used in a great number of foods, making it a big part of our diet. So it is often in bread, sauces and snacks. Other sources of palmitic acid are red meat and dairy.
Palmitic acid causes the LDL cholesterol to rise slightly. This is not as serious as it sounds. It is the large LDL particles and not the (harmful) small particles.
Studies have shown that palmitic acid has a negative effect on mood and that you feel less motivated by exercise. This is not favorable for the number of calories you burn, which also appears from studies.
Palm oil – the main source of palmitic acid in our diet – is also rich in omega 6 fatty acids. This is unfavorable to health (more on that later). It is therefore better to leave as many (ready-to-eat) foods with palm oil as possible. With this, you also provide nature with a service, because there are entire rain forests cut down for palm oil plantations.
# 2: health effects of stearic acid
Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid which is also common in our diet. It is the most common saturated fatty acid on palmitic acid in our diet. It is found in animal fats and is found in some vegetable fats such as coconut oil and cocoa butter.
Stearic acid has a neutral to slightly lowering effect on LDL cholesterol.
A focused study showed that stearic acid did not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Part of the stearic acid is converted by the body into the healthy, unsaturated, oleic acid. Oleic acid is also found in olive oil and avocado and is incinerated with reduced inflammation.
# 3: health effects medium chain fatty acids
Lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid, this is also referred to as MCTs which stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides or with MCFAs which stands for medium chain fatty acids (the fatty acids in MCTs).
Lauric acid with 12 carbon atoms is the longest in the family of MCTs.
Lauric acid increases the good HDL cholesterol in relation to total cholesterol. This is beneficial because it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Most vegetable oils contain only traces of lauric acid, while coconut oil and palm kernel oil are rich.
Did you know that your body processes MCTs in a special and lightning-fast way? They take an inward path to conversion to energy. You can read how that works in my article about coconut oil.
In the video below you see whether coconut oil is healthy or not:
Other MCTs are caproic acid, caprylic acid and caproic acid. They are in small quantities in animal fats. Caproic acid makes 5% of the fatty acids from coconut oil and 4% from palm kernel oil.
MCTs, increase (slightly) the metabolism. Certainly compared with saturated fatty acids that consist of long chains (palmitic acid and stearic acid).
Because MCTs promote the burning of calories, they help to lose weight. Yes, really, you read that correctly; fats that help with weight loss.
This, of course, does not mean that you have to stir a few scoops of coconut oil with each meal just to be able to lose weight. Fats are very high in calories and if you are not careful you will soon eat too many calories. What matters is that by replacing saturated fatty acids (such as snacks and ready meals) with MCTs (such as those from coconut oil or butter) your metabolism can improve.
W hat is also a favorable feature of MCTs is that they improve insulin sensitivity. This also helps with weight loss and the prevention of type 2 diabetes.
# 4: health effects myristic acid
Myristic acid is only in few foods and if it is in it is in relatively low quantities. Only in coconut oil and palm kernel oil is it in relatively higher quantities.
Myristic acid will increase LDL cholesterol. This involves the large LDL particles and not the dangerous small particles.
Because coconut oil and palm kernel oil also contain other fatty acids, the effect of myristic acid on the fats in the blood is neutralized.
# 5: health effects short chain fatty acids
Arachidic acid, behenic acid and butyric acid are short-chain fatty acids. These are also indicated with SCFAs, which stands for short-chain fatty acids.
The fatty acids hardly occur in our diet. There are small amounts in dairy and some fermented foods. Yet these fatty acids occur in our body, even if you do not eat dairy or fermented food. This is because the bacteria that live in our intestines produce these fatty acids.
It is the good bacteria that live on fibers that produce these fatty acids.
Because these fatty acids are important for our health, it is important that we keep our intestinal flora healthy by including sufficient (fermentable) dietary fiber (prebiotics) in our diet.
Saturated fat and cardiovascular diseases
There is no evidence that eating saturated fat causes cardiovascular disease.
It is, therefore, a mystery to me why the Nutrition Center maintains that saturated fat is bad for heart and blood vessels. But if I have more questions marks about the Nutrition Center.
It is also not the case that eating a lot of saturated fat can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It simply does not affect the risk. What has proven to influence the risk of cardiovascular disease are carbohydrates and another type of fat: trans fats. More about trans fats .
The effect of saturated fat on health is neutral.
However, the effect of certain unsaturated fatty acids on health is positive. This involves omega 3 fatty acids.
This has been proven to contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is better to opt for a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vegetables, fruit and fewer trans fats.
Differences between saturated, unsaturated fat and trans fat
We have just read that saturated fat, despite its bad reputation, is not that bad at all. Your body needs fat. As a source of energy, for certain body processes and vitamins.
Scientists unanimously agree on artificial trans fats. This should be avoided at all times, like the plague. They are very harmful to your health; they provide inflammation.
This increases the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (in fact all conditions that are covered by the metabolic syndrome).
To indicate how harmful trans fats are, I can tell you that in 2015 the American food and commodities authority gave manufacturers until 2018 the time to dispose of their foods from trans fats.
In a number of European countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Hungary, trans fats are already banned or strict regulations apply. In the Netherlands artificial trans fats are still permitted at this time.
The annoyance of trans fats is that they do not have to be mentioned on the labels of the food packaging. Fortunately, you can recognize them by cries in the manner of ‘partially hardened vegetable fat’, ‘hydrogenated fat’ and ‘part hardened oil’.
In a number of European countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Hungary, trans fats are already banned or strict regulations apply.
The Netherlands is a one of the countries where artificial trans fats are still permitted at this time.
The annoyance of trans fats is that they do not have to be mentioned on the labels of the food packaging.
Fortunately, you can recognize them by cries in the manner of ‘partially hardened vegetable fat‘, ‘hydrogenated fat‘ and ‘part hardened oil‘.
Artificial trans fats are created by the industrial processing of unsaturated fatty acids. This is done by food manufacturers to extend the shelf life of fats and to improve the feel and texture in the mouth. They do this by hydrogenating unsaturated fatty acids; adding hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats. As a result, solid fats are made from liquid oils.
You also have natural trans fats. These are for example in butter. This has not been shown to be harmful to health. For example, artificial trans fats, such as margaine, have been scientifically proven to be harmful to health.
In the image below you can see how margarine is made. The step in yellow is the step where trans fats occur.
Of course it is great fun for the manufacturers that they can make a hard and cheap vegetable oils a hard fat (such as margarine) which has a longer shelf life and feels better in the mouth. But with this, they also change a healthy oil into a very unhealthy fat. And the annoying thing about this is that you can not tell from the packaging how many trans fats are exactly in it. Therefore, it is best to avoid the best foods with the earlier mentioned cries (such as partially hardened vegetable fat).
Foods where you have to be alert to possible trans fats are:
- fried food
- Peanut butter (certain brands)
- Ready-made meals
- Potato chips
- Frozen pizza
- Coffee creamer
- baking and frying
Saturated fat is usually fixed at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fatty acids are usually just liquid. Foods that contain a relatively large amount of saturated fat have an animal origin.
Examples are red meat, certain parts of the pig and chicken, dairy products such as butter, (full) milk, cottage cheese and cheese.
Some foods with a vegetable origin are also rich in saturated fatty acids. Coconut oil and palm oil stand out in the eye. Palm oil is widely used by the food industry.
As a result, there is often a lot of saturated fat in cakes, cookies and snacks.
Unsaturated fatty acids are known as healthy fatty acids. What is right. They are mainly found in foods with a vegetable origin and to a lesser extent also in certain types of fish.
The unsaturated fatty acids in fish are also of the type (EPA + DHA) that are extremely important for your health.
The unsaturated fatty acids are divided into 2 groups: the polyunsaturated fatty acids and the monounsaturated fatty acids.
Monounsaturated fatty acids are in:
- Vegetable oils such as olive oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are contained in:
- Fish; oily fish species in particular (salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines)
- Chia seed
- Hemp seed and hemp seed oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Linseed and flaxseed oil
The above polyunsaturated fatty acids are especially rich in omega 3.
The following foods with polyunsaturated fatty acids are especially rich in omega 6:
- sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Soya oil
- Safflower oil
- Corn oil
- Liquid baking and roasting products
- Peanuts and peanut butter
As far as omega 6 fatty acids are concerned, it is important to know a few things.
Linoleic acid is an omega 6 fatty acid which is essential. The body can not make this itself and it has to come out of the diet. It is in vegetable oils and because margarines and liquid baking and roasting products are made from this, it is also included.
If we do not eat enough omega 6 fatty acids, then we become ill. They are involved in multiple body processes and the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. Children need omega 6 fatty acids for growth.
Despite the fact that omega 6 fatty acids are healthy, we have to be careful with them. That sounds very contradictory, of course, and I will explain to you how that works; omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammation while omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammation.
A balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is therefore important.
We need inflammation to survive. It protects our body against infections, but it is harmful if there is too much inflammation. In modern society, many people are confronted with chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer) that have inflammation at the basis.
This has to do with our modern diet. What is rich in omega 6 fatty acids and low in omega 3 fatty acids. This while a balanced diet causes a decrease of inflammation.
Our Western diet is rich in omega 6 fatty acids because in many foods (cheap) vegetable oils are processed. Think of sunflower oil and margarine that can be found in many foods.
That is why we always advise to focus on more omega 3 and less omega 6.
Not because omega 6 is unhealthy, but because the ratio omega 6 / omega 3 is otherwise unhealthy.
Studies show that if saturated fats in the diet are replaced by omega 6 fatty acids, the risk of cardiovascular disease increases significantly.
I believe that the Nutrition Center is completely wrong on this point. They advise to replace saturated fats for unsaturated fatty acids by replacing, for example, butter with margarine or soft margarine.
Diets high in omega 6 fatty acids have also been shown to provoke depression and violent behavior. This while omega 3 fatty acids improve mental health, such as depression.
You can lower your omega 6 fatty acids in your diet by replacing vegetable oils such as sunflower oil and margarine with coconut oil, butter or olive oil.
You could also replace peanut butter for a nut paste. Peanut butter is very rich in omega 6 while it does not contain omega 3. This is unfavorable. In addition to omega 6, nuts also contain omega 3 fatty acids. Walnuts in particular are a good source of omega 3.
By using as much unprocessed food as possible, you automatically exclude many omega 6 fatty acids. Many processed foods contain vegetable oils rich in omega 6.
Conclusions – summary
We summarize everything with the following points:
- There is no evidence that saturated fat causes cardiovascular disease or that less saturated fat causes a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Artificial trans fats are very harmful and cause cardiovascular diseases.
- The effect of saturated fat on health is neutral while the effect of unsaturated fatty acids is positive.
- Omega 3 fatty acids are healthy and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- With unsaturated fatty acids an optimal balance of 1: 1 between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is important to prevent inflammation
A number of nuances have to be made here:
- Give preference to unsaturated fatty acids, this fact contribute to better health (but do not worry if something is in saturated fat and fry an egg safely in coconut oil).
- Pay attention to what you replace saturated fats. If, for example, these calories are replaced for refined carbohydrates or added sugars, this is only worse for health! Replace foods rich in saturated fatty acids for foods rich in unsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 fatty acids), proteins or unprocessed (slow) carbohydrate sources such as vegetables or fruit.
- For unsaturated fatty acids, ensure a good balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. A ratio of 1: 1 is optimal. A diet high in omega 6 fatty acids will cause inflammation which increases the risk of chronic diseases.
- Avoid artificial trans fats at all times. These are very harmful to health and cause inflammation and an increased risk of chronic diseases.
The explanations on these points can be found in this article.
List of saturated fats that you better not eat
Certain foods contain unhealthy additives in addition to saturated fats. It is therefore better to leave it or not to eat too often. It’s about:
- Pizza; rich in saturated fatty acids and contains a lot of refined carbohydrates. Frozen pizzas also often contain trans fats and other artificial additives.
- Processed meats; this often includes dextrose or glucose syrup (or other forms of sugar) or starch. This in addition to all kinds of flavors and other E-numbers. Processed meat products are best replaced by unprocessed meats, fish or a vegetable meat substitute such as tofu.
- Fried food; these contain unsaturated fat and are often rich in omega 6 fatty acids which is unfavorable for a healthy omega 6 – omega 3 balance. Deep-fried food usually also contains trans fat and other artificial additives.
- Ice cream; this is rich in saturated fat but also very rich in sugars.
- Pastry; rich in saturated fat, sugars, refined carbohydrates and usually also trans fats.
- Snacks; rich in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, often contains trans fat and artificial additives.
List of saturated fats that you can eat
Certain foods contain saturated fat but do not have a negative effect on health (or even a positive effect on health). You can therefore simply eat these without worrying about your health. Examples:
- Greek yoghurt
- Full yogurt or cottage cheese
- Unprocessed meat
- Unprocessed poultry
- Unprocessed (fatty) fish and seafood (very healthy)
- Coconut oil
- Full-fat cheese
- Extra virgin olive oil (very healthy, should use cold for maximum health impact)
Put the emphasis on foods rich in omega 3.
When preparing meat, poultry or fish you can not fry it but grilling, baking, steaming or cooking. For baking you can best use coconut oil, ghee, butter or olive oil.
Olive oil is also perfect for cold use in, for example, salads. By using it cold, the healthy antioxidants remain the best.
You always can make some healthy oils yourself with this Oil Press Machine;
BAOSHISHAN Household Oil Press Machine Small Oil Press for Press Peanut Sesame Rapeseed Walnut Oil Cold Press Machine
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