Healthy fats, including saturated fats, have been a component of many traditional human diets for ages. Butter, red meat, whole milk, cheese, and eggs were common in most households until the fat myth came about around more than 50 years ago.
It was then that saturated fats were condemned as unhealthy and associated with heart disease. This dominated the medical world and brought on public health policies to recommend decreasing fats and substituting them for more processed foods that were often high in simple carbs and sugars. The results from these recommendations have not been favorable for our health. Even more so, recent studies have now concluded that the reduction of saturated fats does not improve cardiovascular health and their substitution with “healthier” processed alternatives has turned out to be more detrimental to our health. It turns out, our traditional use of animal fats in our diet was healthy after all.
What exactly are saturated fats?
Saturated fats are chains of carbon molecules, all aligned with single hydrogen bonds (as opposed to unsaturated fats that have double bonds). These healthy fats are solid at room temperature, very stable and more commonly found in animal fats. The body needs saturated fats to absorb important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E and K.
Key structures in the body also need saturated fats. For example
- bones need it to effectively incorporate calcium
- lungs produce lung surfactant from saturated fats
- our brain, which is mostly made of fat and cholesterol, prefers saturated fats for energy
- nerves also need them for the coating of nerve cells
- the immune system is another key player in the body that needs saturated fats for white blood cells to function properly and defend us from viruses, bacteria, and fungi
Healthy saturated fats help us feel satiated and as far as meal preparation goes, are one of the more stable fats for cooking. Because of the single bonds, the fats are not easily oxidized and withstand high heat without producing free radicals that can cause inflammation, increase aging and disease. Coconut oil, ghee, and butter are good sources of cooking fats with high nutritional value.
So where did we get all the misleading information of saturated fats?
There was an assumption that saturated fats did increase cholesterol, which is associated with heart disease, but there were no experimental studies on this 50 years ago. We now know more about the distinction of HDL and LDL. Healthy saturated fats can actually increase your HDL levels which are more protective of heart disease. There is evidence confirming that they do also increase LDL (considered the bad cholesterol), but there is a small detail that easily gets lost here.
Besides increasing the LDL, saturated fats actually modify these molecules. LDLs can be either large and bulky or small and dense. The small molecules can be more harmful as they are more easily oxidized and can penetrate the arterial walls, but larger LDLs are much more benign. Eating saturated fats can change the LDL molecules to the larger type that are more protective of heart disease.
In 2010 and 2014 there were two big reviews of scientific studies to determine the association of saturated fats to heart disease. Guess what? None was found! The reduction of saturated fats in the diet did not improve heart disease risk; just the opposite was happening in those cases where saturated fats were removed and replaced by polyunsaturated fats and there were no better outcomes reported when low-fat diets were being followed either.
These can be explained by the increase of inflammation from both of these alternative diets. When polyunsaturated oils are consumed instead of saturated fats, they are most commonly omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and cause an increase in chronic disease.
Low-fat diets often substitute nutrient dense whole foods for high carb/sugar foods that release free radicals during their metabolic breakdown. In older studies, there was also no distinction between healthy saturated fats and trans or hydrogenated fats which we know are detrimental to our body. We now understand that there are clear differences between margarine and real butter, and how harmful processed oils can be to our body. Healthy nourishing saturated fats were being replaced with processed foods that were causing more harm than good.
This further explains how pizza, pastries, burgers, fries and ice cream are still big enemies to our diets. These contain saturated fats with carbs and/or sugars. The combination of carbs and fat and artificial sugars are a disastrous bomb when it comes to our health. We have mistakenly been blaming fat for too many years, but we now know they alone are not the problem. Rather it might be the combination of bad fat plus refined and processed carbs that causes poor health!
Eat these saturated fats
Healthy sources of saturated fats come from whole foods like organic butter, cheese, cream, whole milk from pastured cows, bacon from pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef/lamb and organic eggs from cage-free chickens. The cleaner the source, the less toxins to you and your body. Plant sources of saturated fats are found in coconut oil (or medium-chain triglyceride oil, MCT oil), cacao and nuts. Chocolate Covered Macadamia Creemie anyone?
Saturated fats do open up some healthy and tasty meals, like this Dandelion Salad with Crumbled Bacon, or this Ultimate Salad Dressing made from healthy fats, tahini, mustard, and turmeric. Eggs are back again and go great in this Hollandaise Superfood Plus sauce (butter, lemon, herbs, yum!).
How did we possibly go all this time avoiding these healthy fats? They are a delicious key ingredient to our diet and health, so please do enjoy them daily and without guilt that you’re hurting your body. As we now know nothing could be further from the truth!