For nearly five decades saturated fat has been portrayed as the dietary equivalent of smoking. If you value your health, consuming these fats is something you should avoid at all costs, apparently. Because the most commonly consumed forms of saturated fat are found in meats, this position has enabled the further condemnation of consuming animals. The claims have ranged from the bizarre to the frankly ridiculous. It has also played nicely into an underlying agenda. This sees livestock as the problem and exclusively plant-based food as the answer. Every kind of argument, from the moral to the environmental, has been thrown at the twin evils of meat and saturated fat consumption over the half-century.
Even during the period when ‘scientific’ orthodoxy barely allowed any contrary view to be expressed. though, there were those who pointed out the inconsistencies. These brave souls indicated how much of the so-called ‘evidence’ was based on notoriously unreliable epidemiological studies. They demonstrated how much of this evidence seemed to disappear on closer examination of the flawed studies. In more recent times, they were even able to point out how poorly these claims stood up to scrutiny when randomised controlled trials were used. Such trials are regarded as being far more scientifically valid as they can establish cause and effect, not merely association. Many of the objectors paid dearly in terms of their scientific careers (1).
The JACC report of 2020.
The prestigious Journal of the American College of Cardiology was previously considered a relatively conservative journal and fairly staunch in its support of the notion that the consumption of saturated fat was to be avoided because of its connection with cholesterol, particularly low-density lipids (LDL). This made the publication of a meta-analysis in May of 2020 by this journal all the more surprising. After sorting through a mountain of studies attempting to sort out the reality from the fallacious, the study reached the conclusion that: “found no beneficial effects of reducing SFA intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) and total mortality, and instead found protective effects against stroke“(2).
Considering the previous reluctance of this body, and many others, to express any criticism whatsoever of the decades-old diet-heart hypothesis. This was a major change of direction. Having said that, it was certainly not before time. Researchers all over the world have been pointing out for a considerable time now the deep flaws in the idea that cholesterol is at the root of CVD. They have pointed out the likelihood that poor diets, high in carbohydrates and even straightforward sugar are, in reality, the more likely culprit.
Happily, we now know that diets rich in whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, and even dark chocolate (it’s amazing how little actual chocolate is in what is sold as ‘milk chocolate’) are rich in saturated fatty acid containing foods and are not associated with a higher risk of CVD. As the report states: “The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods”.
What is Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat is the simplest type of fat molecule possible. The ‘saturated’ in ‘saturated fats’ simply means that the carbon atoms are saturated by hydrogen atoms exclusively using single bonds. Fats wherein the carbon atoms are connected by double bonds are known as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, depending on if there is a single double bond (mono) or several double-bonds (poly). The term ‘saturated’ implies nothing whatsoever negative about the quality of the fat. It is simply a term used in chemistry to describe the presence, or lack of, double bonds.
Like all fats, the carbon chain in saturated fats are connected by a carboxyl group at one end. A simple diagram at this point will make this clearer:
Foods containing Saturated Fat
Saturated fats are found in red meat (beef, lamb and pork), full-fat dairy products (cheeses, butter, and cream), palm oil, and coconut oil. Humans have been consuming large quantities of saturated fats in their animal-based diets for two and a half million years. This has been the case without suffering the high rates of heart diseases we see in the modern world. In fact, the fattiest forms of meat seem to have been particularly favoured historically. This is probably because of the calorific density and bio-availability of the nutrition contained therein.
Saturated Fat Metabolism
From the moment fat enters the body, enzymes start to break it down. This process is known as lipolysis. Our bodies use Lipases for this task, a specific type of enzymes utilised for breaking down fat. These enzymes break down triglycerides into their component parts, ie fatty acids and glycerol molecules. Literally, from the moment that the fat enters your mouth, it is being broken down by enzymes. Forms of lipase, as well as lysozyme and amylase, are found in saliva and start the digestive process in our mouths. As we masticate, saliva is mixed with the fat to start the digestive process. Lipases, in various forms, are found in the stomach and liver and continue these processes as food proceeds along our digestive tract.
The resultant fatty acids from this process are used by energy for the muscles, heart and organs. They also serve as building blocks for cell membranes. The remaining glycerol, a naturally occurring form of carbohydrate, can be utilised as a fuel source by the body in much the same way as any other form of carbohydrate.
Using Saturated Fats
Saturated fat is invariably solid at room temperature. Unlike the less stable vegetable oils, saturated fats normally have high melting points. This means that these fats are generally safer than unsaturated fats to fry with. Having sat that, frying is not highly recommended in general because of the strong possibility of creating advanced glycation end products in the body (3). If you do wish to fry food, though, by far the safest way to do so is with saturated fats such as lard, tallow, palm oil, coconut oil, and butter (4).
In general, given the results of the studies referred to above, we should enjoy saturated fats in our foods. There is no clear reason, from the nutritional point of view, to avoid the consumption of such delights as unprocessed meats, dark chocolate, full-fat dairy, and eggs. These foods are as healthy as they are tasty and should form part of any well-rounded diet. Indeed, they can make up the backbone of a heart-healthy, obesity-fighting, ketogenic diet (5).
The advice on nutrition has come full circle in the last fifty years. During that time, the dietary recommendations have favoured the consumption of carbohydrates in the form of fruit, grains and vegetables over fats and proteins. This has led to our current obesity disaster with its concomitant rates of CVD, diabetes, and various forms of metabolic syndrome. Finally, the weight of scientific evidence against these recommendations has become such that even formerly staunch defenders are changing their tune. Inertia is a powerful force, however. A simple search on saturated fat on Google will come up with a range of dire warnings. It may take years before the reality filters through the morass of misinformation and disinformation. Hopefully, this blog will play a small part in that process.