Posted by Kaitlyn McConnell on Dec. 4, 2018 A woman shops for food at a grocery store.

Through the years, dietary recommendations have suggested reducing overall fat intake in the diet. This reduced fat intake, however, has led to increase in something else: Refined carbohydrates, which may be contributing to increased obesity rates. 

Fats are an essential part of the diet and are needed for bodily functions such as storing energy for later use and helping with absorption of some vitamins. There are various types of fat including unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. 

This article will focus solely on saturated fats, which have been feared in the past. Research is showing that we may have rushed to include all sources of saturated fats into this "harmful" category as not all food sources are created equal. It is likely that you will be consuming saturated fats on a daily basis since it is found in many foods. 

Here is a breakdown of information you should know including the latest research, how to choose the best food sources, and some tips for cooking meats in healthier manners.

What is a saturated fat?

Saturated fats are simply a type of fat that is solid at room temperature (such as bacon grease, that hardens after a while). All saturated fats are made up of different fatty acids that have various roles in determining health benefit or health risk. It is a natural fat predominantly found in animal products such as meat, cheese, and dairy, but it is also found in plant sources such as palm and coconut oil. 

Truthfully, saturated fats are found in all natural fat-containing foods in varying amounts. 

What is research saying now?

The role of saturated fat in chronic disease is complex. Traditionally, it has been recommended to limit saturated fat in the diet due to possible negative health effects, especially on heart health. However, some sources have pointed out that evidence is weak in terms of this association. 

Newer research is suggesting that not all saturated fats are created equal. In fact, individual saturated fatty acids may have some cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.  It is possible that the type of fat consumed is more important than the amount of fat in one’s diet. Saturated fat may improve HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, total cholesterol/HDL ratio, and triglyceride levels all of which may decrease risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dairy foods are a popular food source containing these saturated fats, and each dairy source has a different fatty acid makeup. There is interesting new research being done surrounding the link between higher serum levels of dairy fatty acids in the body and risk for Type 2 diabetes. There have been a few preliminary studies showing that people consuming higher amounts of dairy products may lower their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 30 percent. 

It is possible that some specific types of dairy foods, like cheese and yogurt, could positively affect the body in certain ways such as lowering blood sugar, lowering insulin resistance, and preventing the liver from producing excess fat. These are early results that surely need to be studied further, but this would be a great tool for diabetes prevention in the future if the research becomes clear.

Because the health effects of saturated fat vary depending on the food source, future nutrition recommendations may focus on increasing or decreasing specific foods versus saturated fats as a whole. Unfortunately, more research is needed to determine the benefits or risks of specific saturated fat containing foods.

Good food sources: natural vs. processed

Did you know that of all the saturated fat sources out there, pizza is the second highest contributor of saturated fat in the American diet?

The quality of your fat-containing foods consumed is important to consider. Avoidance of meat, dairy, and cheese is generally not ideal because these foods are important sources of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. 

It is recommended to consume these foods in their most natural form with the least amount of processing to them. For example, it is better to eat cheese, yogurt, and drink a glass of milk rather than eating saturated fats from commercial baked goods or processed meats like hot dogs and deli meats.  

So, what about coconut oil and butter?

You may be questioning whether you should be eating foods such as butter and the ever-popular coconut oil. 

There have been many studies on possible benefits of coconut oil, especially regarding metabolic and heart health. A common result was that coconut oil did have negative effects on LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. However, some suggested that coconut oil may positively impact HDL cholesterol. Overall, the results for cholesterol have been inconsistent, and it is unknown if coconut oil has a beneficial, harmful, or neutral effect on health. 

Butter is another controversial food and some question whether it should be substituted with products like margarine. The answer is still unclear on whether or not butter has a beneficial, harmful, or neutral effect on health. It is possible that the fatty acids in butter have a mostly neutral effect on metabolic factors associated with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Yet, it is also shown to negatively impact LDL cholesterol and other cholesterol numbers. 

Overall, there is still no crystal clear answer regarding if these products have any implications if consumed. Even though these two products have been studied over and over again by many researchers who are just as curious as you may be about these.

What does that mean for you? While coconut oil and butter shouldn’t be considered off-limits, they don't seem to live up to the hype, either. Small amounts in the diet are just fine, but focusing on healthier fat sources is still a good, better-proven recommendation.

Healthy cooking method

The way saturated fats are prepared is also important factor in consuming them in a healthier manner. 

Advanced Glycation End-Products (AGEs) are produced when proteins or fats are heated. AGEs cause oxidation in the body, leading to inflammation -- a cause of many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 

It is important to be aware of this when cooking with oils and meat because these can be unstable at high temperatures, leading to the production of AGEs. However, there are things you can do when cooking to protect the integrity of food:

- Prepare meat in moist heat, such as in soups or stews.

- Add acid to meat, either during cooking or via marinades containing lemon juice or vinegar.

- Cook at a low heat, and reduce cooking time, which also helps reduce AGE production.

Conclusion

Instead of looking at saturated fat as a whole, it now seems we need to take a more individualized approach for each food source to make dietary recommendations. 

With all lines of evidence considered, the role of saturated fat in chronic disease is still a complex one. There is still inconsistency regarding whether there are potential health benefits, health risks, or even a neutral effect -- especially when it comes to heart health -- with consuming saturated fat. 

As for now, we can continue to consume our fats in moderation until there is more clear evidence. We also encourage focusing on more unsaturated fat (includes monounsaturated, omega-3) sources, which we know have health benefits to us. Examples of these include avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil.

Article written by Natalie Truber. Natalie is a student at Cox College in the Nutrition Diagnostics Dietetic Internship.

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