Although most health experts agree that you should limit your intake of saturated fat, others insist that saturated fat has been unfairly demonized. So, what’s the truth? Is saturated fat something you should be trying to avoid or is it — as some argue — a uniquely healthy type of fat?
The main charge against saturated fat (the kind found in butter, cream, red meat, coconut and chocolate) is that diets high in saturated fat have been linked with increased risk of heart disease. But while eating more saturated fat may raise your LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol numbers, it also tends to increase the size of those LDL cholesterol particles. Larger LDL cholesterol particles have been linked to lower risk of heart disease. On the other hand, saturated fat tends to promote cellular inflammation, a process linked to higher heart disease risk.
A 2015 review of 72 studies (that’s a lot of studies!) found that simply eating less saturated fat does not reduce the risk of heart problems. What’s the deal? Whenever we talk about eating less or more of a food or nutrient, we need to take into account what we’re eating more (or less) of as a result. Our food swaps matter. Cutting down on fat and eating more refined carbohydrates instead does not appear to be heart healthy. Replacing some of the saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats, on the other hand, does reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
As I’ve argued before, no single food or nutrient can reasonably be designated as “healthy” or “unhealthy” in a vacuum. It’s how you put it all together that counts. No matter what sources of fat it includes, a healthy diet will also include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nutritious protein sources and few empty calories. In the context of such a diet, I think there’s absolutely room for some saturated fat. In fact, there may even be some advantages.
Many foods that contain saturated fat, such as meat and dairy products, also provide other valuable nutrients, including protein, calcium, iron and zinc. Moreover, those who consume full-fat dairy products may actually be more likely to maintain a healthy weight than those who choose low-fat dairy. Saturated fat is also stable at high heat and resists oxidation. While I certainly wouldn’t suggest a steady diet of fried foods, highly saturated coconut oil is an excellent choice for an occasional fried treat, as it is less likely to form harmful compounds when heated.
That said, I don’t suggest using saturated fats as your only source of fat, because then you’d be missing out on the well-established benefits of the healthful fats found olive oil, avocados, nuts and fatty fish. Although saturated fat may not be the villain it is sometimes made out to be, there’s no need to ride the pendulum to the other extreme either. A balanced and varied diet of nutrient-dense foods is the ideal way to get the nutrition your body needs.