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What Saturated Fats Are NOT So Bad?

two halfs of coconut

Recently I wrote an article about how some saturated fats, such as those found in butter and cream, can have detrimental effects on cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health, as well as weight control. But it’s important to note that not all saturated fats are equally bad when it comes to their effects of cardiovascular health.

A Bit of Background

A triglyceride molecule

Fats found in the foods we eat (as well as those pinchable bits on our bodies) are found in the form of triglycerides. Each triglyceride molecule is made up of three fatty acids, attached to one glycerol molecule. The fatty acids can all be different lengths, and each can be saturated/unsaturated/polyunsaturated, so the individual mix of fatty acids that make up any given food can be pretty complex. For example, there are at least 17 different fatty acids present in butter fat. I only talked about a few of the most prevalent ones, stearic acid, palmitic acid and myristic acid, but I want everyone to realize we’re dealing with complex mixtures!

Saturated Fatty Acids: The breakdown

The most cholesterol-raising saturated fats include palmitic acid (16:0), myristic acid (14:0) and lauric acid (12:0). <– Those numbers in parentheses indicate the number of total carbons, followed by the number of double bonds. No double bonds means a saturated fat.

Stearic acid (18:0) is neutral, meaning it does not have a significant effect on cholesterol levels.

Medium chain triglycerides, containing 8 or 10 carbons, are a bit tricky. Historically, they have been labeled as cholesterol-neutral, but there are also published studies which demonstrate that they do raise LDL levels and triglycerides, albeit less so than palmitic acid. I’m pretty comfortable putting them in the neutral category, as neither strongly desirable nor harmful to blood lipids.

In Food Terms….

Dairy: Foods which are high in the cholesterol-raising fatty acids are best to limit for cardiovascular health: This includes butter, cream, and other full-fat dairy products like cream cheese, sour cream and whole milk. As I mentioned in my earlier post, these foods aren’t off limits, but moderation is a good idea, and including ample amounts of beneficial fats like omega-3s as well will help ensure a balanced fatty acid intake and prevent the saturated fats you do eat from being as damaging. I personally grinned to see a study was just published reporting that cheese is less damaging than butter, possibly owing to the calcium content. I do love cheese!

Palm Oil and lard are definitely good ideas to keep a lid on. (But who eats lard anymore anyways? Probably not people who read dietitians’ blogs.)

Other animal fats including beef fat, pork fat, bacon and drippings, are comprised of mostly 14:0, 16:0 and 18:0 fatty acids, so you could say a mixture of naughty and neutral. Choosing grass-fed beef is one way to favorably impact the profile of fats you ingest, as grass-fed beef contains more of the neutral stearic acid, and less of the detrimental palmitic and myristic acids. It’s also lower in total fat and has some omega-3’s (though not a high percentage).

Cocoa Butter and Chocolate: Rejoice if you love chocolate, because much of it’s saturated fat is from 18:0 stearic acid, so not likely to raise cholesterol levels. And a third of the fat content is cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat, so it may even cross into the beneficial category. While the flavonoids in chocolate provide additional benefits, the usual accompaniment of sugar means that you should still exercise some moderation with chocolate, and choose the darkest one you enjoy.

Coconut oil and Coconut: My feeling on coconut oil (and this is a controversial topic) is that it is likely to be neutral on cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease risk. Few human studies are available, most of the research has been done on rats or rabbits. Much of the data indicating that coconut oil should not be vilified with other saturated fats comes from studies on populations in which coconut consumption is high, yet cardiovascular disease is low. However, I caution readers that most of the claims made that coconut oil is a “miracle food” with extensive benefits….are overblown at best, and completely fabricated at worst. Use it for the great flavor, not because you believe it will cure you of anything.

Putting it all together

Some saturated fats are known to have negative effects on lipid profiles, while some saturated fats don’t seem to be harmful at all. Bear in mind that some fats, such as monounsaturated oleic acid and polyunsaturated DHA and EPA have favorable effects on cardiovascular health, so even the cholesterol neutral saturated fats could be swapped to something with actual benefits. So in that light, using coconut oil instead of butter for a pastry would be a good switch, but using olive oil instead of coconut oil for roasting vegetables would be even better.

Remember also that even the most detrimental saturated fats aren’t as bad for your body as hydrogenated oils, so a natural unprocessed saturated fat is a better pick for your health than a processed trans fat like shortening or hydrogenated nondairy creamer.

Hope this gave you some good stuff to think about! I would love to hear your comments on saturated fat and how you manage it in your diet.
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  • Kianni November 28, 2011, 4:36 pm

    Thank YOU! LOl. Finally, someone to explain it in terms people can understand. Saturated fats get such a bad rap. I hate how so many people push low fat, high carb, low protein diets. It got me pretty angry the other week in my athletic training class when she was saying we need a 80/10/10 Carb/fat/protein diet and how we should not eat saturated fats, low sugar etc.

  • Kalyn November 27, 2011, 9:34 am

    Being moderate with fat and avoiding saturated fat is definitely my biggest diet challenge. Good information, thanks for this.

  • Monica November 27, 2011, 8:44 am

    Hi Georgie! I love your articles – this is especially helpful to me. My doctor told me to get a cholesterol test (and I have been putting it off…) because my last test a few years ago showed high cholesterol. I pointed out to her that at that time I was eating frozen pizza bites and tater tots for dinner every day and that now cooking and eating as healthy as possible is part of my lifestyle. Still, I enjoy air-popped popcorn with melted butter a few too many times a week, and I’ve been eating more meat lately than I typically do, so maybe I should go for that test after all. Either way, your information is super helpful and I will use it to try to improve my diet even more. It’s not that the info is not available to us out here on the vast internet, but you organize it in exactly the way that I’m looking for and make it easy and accessible. I like to see it all in one place. And I’m happy to hear that grass fed beef is better for you – I already choose it as a more humane and natural option and I love to support my local farmers!

  • Canadian November 27, 2011, 7:32 am

    Um, I read several dietitian blogs and I use lard. It makes the best pie crusts.

  • Chuck November 27, 2011, 12:10 am

    Wow, this gave me a ton to think about. There’s just SOO much back and forth on this topic. As someone who follow a Paleo (ish) diet, I often see recipes calling for the use of cooking in real butter or beef tallow. However, in these cases, the butter and tallow come from grass-fed sources. Do you have any thoughts on how for many people, using theses saturated fats has actually improved their blood lipid levels as well as overall health?

    I think the biggest player here is what we can’t control for- the combination of saturated fats with other foods. Real butter is going to be harmful if put on something that is already going to be inflamatory like white Wonder Bread that, at the same time, can lead to leaky gut syndrome. However, that same butter used on a sweet potato or to saute fresh vegetables, will be utilized much differently in the body.

    Am I on the right track at least?

    Haha, and I read a blog the other day suggesting that soy oil was healthy to use…mmm no thanks!

    Thank you Georgie!!