In the world of nutrition, people like things to be black and white:
All carbs are evil!
Eggs raise cholesterol!
Beef is high in saturated fat, eat lettuce instead!
Unfortunately for the dogmatism in all of us, the world of food is one giant grey zone.
Today, we're going to touch base on saturated fats. Here are a few facts:
- The belief that saturated fat in the diet leads to cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been debunked. Saturated fat will only lead to a health problem if:
- Your diet is also high in sugar/processed carbohydrates
- Your ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat is out of balance
- You have a genetic predisposition to be sensitive to saturated fat in the diet
- Some saturated fats (such as stearic fat, found in cocoa butter and beef) may actually lower bad cholesterol. So again, if you’re eating a healthy diet, saturated fat will be a part of the diet and will do more good than bad.
- Human breast milk, the “perfect” food for the rapidly developing human body, contains 54% saturated fat. Try to argue your way out of that one.
Saturated fats come in three types:
- Short-chain: These are absorbed directly in the gut and as such are available to be used immediately for energy. Real butter and coconut oil are sources of short-chain fatty acids and as such are great for health within the right amounts, delivering butyric acid that promotes healthy gut bacteria (which improves digestion and overall health and supports weight loss).
- Medium-chain (MCTs): These are the primary fuel for cells in the gut and are also powerfully anti-microbial. Much like short-chain fatty-acids, MCTs are metabolized by the gut and can be used immediately for energy. Real butter, milk fats, ghee and coconut oil are the best sources (although you can also purchase supplemental MCT oil).
- Long-chain: These are the fatty acids that are associated with poor health and increased heart disease. As these long chain as very sticky, when consumed in excess they contribute to clogged arteries and other health issues. With that said, when consumed as part of a healthy diet, these fatty acids are used to construct cell membranes and are vital for communication between cells of the body.
POP-QUIZ: Per 100g, which food contains more saturated fat? Porterhouse steak or cashews? You'd think the steak right? Well, you'd be wrong. Steak has around 6g of saturated fat/100g and cashews have around 8g. In fact, almost all meats contain less saturated fat/gram than most nuts. Additionally, all whole foods labelled "high in saturated fat" are typically higher in unsaturated fat:
Steak: 3.5g monounsaturated fat to 2.5g saturated fat
Eggs: 3.8g monounsaturated fat to 3.0g saturated fat
Bacon: 18g monounsaturated fat to 13g saturated fat
Even pure beef tallow (fat) has a roughly 50-50 fat split. The truth is that whole foods are always a mix of macronutrients with a blend of fat sources. You can try to live in black and white if you want, but you'll be lying to yourself about your diet.
Other benefits of saturated fat
- Testosterone is as important for women as it is for men. Without adequate saturated fat in the diet, testosterone with drop, along with libido, health, performance and the possibility of weight loss. Saturated fat helps maintain healthy hormone levels (notably testosterone) in times of high stress and intense exercise.
- If you regularly consume alcohol, drugs (caffeine, prescription or recreational), or fast/fried foods, MCTs from saturated fat will support the liver while it's being relied upon for constant detoxification. Without adequate medium-chain saturated fats, the liver will run into problems sooner than later.
- In athletes, saturated fats not only increase the potential for strength and endurance, but also help speed up recovery from intense activity.
Saturated fats aren't bad, unhealthy, or evil, and almost all foods contain a mix of both saturated and unsaturated fats. If your diet is extremely out of balance towards anything, saturated fat included, you will run into health problems in the long run. The general recommendations are to eat whole food sources with a balanced fatty acid profile, and to be cautious when adding oils to the diet. For every tbsp of coconut oil, use a tbsp of olive oil to ensure healthy balance. And don't forget that fats pack a caloric punch so if you're adding saturated fats to the diet, be sure to remove other calories somewhere else.