Saturated Fats - Good or Bad? Or Both?


More and more, saturated fat is back on the menu. I’ve been saying for years that saturated fat has been unfairly vilified as the cause of cardiovascular disease and large reviews of studies continue to agree that it does not cause heart disease, diabetes, or increase the risk of mortality. That said, I still recommend limiting your saturated fat intake from certain sources (like cornfed beef and pork). Why? Because no one said it’s a perfectly healthy option, they just say it doesn’t cause chronic diseases.

Unfortunately it seems like the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. A recent New York Times article described how food manufacturers are scrambling to add saturated fats back into their processed foods now that it has been deemed “healthy.” Saturated fats are healthier than the highly damaging refined sugars and trans fat vegetable oils they originally replaced it with, but I (like many others) recommend skipping processed foods in general. Food manufacturers may be putting the fat back in, but they’re not taking the sugar out (they’re just calling it something else).

It’s Not Good or Bad

We like to have simple, black and white recommendations when it comes to our health. Smoking is bad, vegetables are good, but there are many food or nutrients where all or nothing thinking can lead to confusion and frustration. Is red meat good or bad? Is salt good or bad? If alcohol is harmful, why does a glass of wine a day seem to correlate with longer lifespans? What about the French Paradox? Why do French people have such low rates of cardiovascular disease when their diets are high in saturated fats?

It’s one of the reasons why our nutrition news stories seem to contradict themselves every few years. We keep searching for evidence to show whether a food group or nutrient should be included or completely excluded, but there are far more options than “always” or “never.” Some foods or nutrients (like sugar) might be harmful in massive doses, but fine in reasonable amounts. Others may have harmful effects on their own, but when included in a balanced diet, these side effects are neutralized. Our refusal to take a nuanced approach to nutrition means that researchers can always find enough evidence to back their strong, black or white stance, but then another researcher will just come along and provide enough evidence to prove the counter-argument because the truth actually lies somewhere in the middle.

With that in mind, I want to give some nuanced advice on saturated fats. You shouldn’t fear saturated fat, but you also shouldn’t think of it as health food. On its own, saturated fat won’t make you sick, but it does have some drawbacks that need to be balanced out with a good mixture of fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fats. When you combine saturated fat with refined sugars (like in processed foods), then it really does become a strong contributor to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers, and overall mortality. It can be a part of your diet, but it’s important to know the downsides as well as the upsides of saturated fat so you can best understand when and how to include it in your own diet.

First let me go over all the benefits and drawbacks to saturated fat and then I’ll give some specific recommendations on how to add it into your own diet at the end.


Appetite Stabilizer

The biggest problem with pulling saturated fat out of our diets was that it caused our appetites to soar. Fat is not only filling, but it helps stabilize your hormones and blood sugar so you’re not thinking about food all day. When someone comes to me and says they can’t lose weight, the most common problem is that their attempts to eat fat-free got them stuck on the carb rollercoaster. They think they’re eating healthy because they start their day with a big bowl of oatmeal to fire up their metabolisms, then they have a salad with low-fat salad dressings, and they fill their day with all kinds of low-fat foods and snacks. Insulin spikes from too much sugar fires your appetite back up within an hour after your meal. If food was scarce, these people would just have to endure the appetite spikes and eventually their bodies would normalize their blood sugar. Unfortunately, convenient processed foods are everywhere, so most people are able to graze throughout the day. It’s far too easy to find food in our culture, and simply trying to resist your hunger will fail you by the end of the day. Fat calms these cravings and leaves you feeling satisfied long term. Just don’t mix the fat with refined sugar. That’s when it doesn’t help at all. Sugar triggers insulin, and insulin tells your body to store all the fat you eat so your body can process the sugar first. You won’t receive any of the appetite-controlling benefits of fat if you have sugar first or have it in massive doses. However, studies have found that consuming your sugars at the end of the meal helps stabilize your blood sugar and reduces appetite. I’ll explain why below.

Slows Gastric Emptying

So why is low-fat dairy more likely to contribute to obesity than full-fat dairy? For the same reason that protein and fiber also significantly reduce the risks of obesity, help with satiety, and improve blood sugar levels. The saturated fat in dairy helps slow down gastric emptying, the speed at which food leaves your stomach and dumps into your small intestines. Slowing down this process delays the speed that any sugars you’ve eaten can move on to the next step of digestion and enter your bloodstream. That’s why eating the fat before the sugar ultimately leads to less fat storage. When sugar enters your bloodstream too quickly, it spikes your insulin levels which not only causes you to store any fat you eat in your fat cells, but it will crash your blood sugar levels soon after, causing you to eat again. As I mentioned in the article on how to structure your diet, a big part of healthy eating really focuses on maintaining stable blood sugar levels. Surges and drops in your blood sugar leads to physically damaging levels of sugar in your blood, it causes your appetite to repeatedly soar throughout the day, and it keeps your body locked in storage mode. Saturated fat evens out these spikes, but it’s not magical. Putting it back into processed foods does not make them healthy. All the refined sugar in packaged foods means your body will quickly store the saturated fat in your fat cells, and once it gets in there, it’s harder to get out (more on that later). If you want to add saturated fat back into your diet, add it in to the foods you make. Don’t be afraid to cook your vegetables in butter (more on that below as well).


Dairy is Different

I mentioned that full-fat dairy doesn’t tend to lead to weight gain even though it’s a mixture of sugar (lactose) and saturated fat. Aside from the fact that the fat in dairy also slows gastric emptying, dairy also has some unique factors that also help.

It’s like I was talking about before. You can’t just analyze one nutrient in a vacuum, which is why we’re still not sure of all the reasons that full-fat dairy seems to be better for your weight than low-fat dairy. One reason is the fat-clearing effects of calcium. Another is the fact that our bodies can convert lactose into the prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). This compound feeds the good bacteria in your large intestines and those microbes then release compounds that improve your overall health. In this particular case, galacto-oligosaccharides have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has been shown to contribute to fat storage and elevated blood glucose levels, so reducing this hormone will not only help keep the weight off, but it will reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Stress has also been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both in the short-term and in the long-term. The stress-reducing effects of this prebiotic can be why dairy seems to help manage weight in the long-term and reduce insulin resistance over time.

Some types of dairy like yogurt and aged-cheeses also contain helpful probiotics. Our modern diet has reduced the variety of organisms within our microbiomes and this has led to all kinds of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, food allergies, and celiac disease. An imbalanced microbiome (called dysbiosis) has also been shown to contribute to certain types of cancer, obesity, autism, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. Adding a mixture of probiotics back into your diet will improve your weight, immune system, blood chemistry, and overall physical and mental well-being, even if some of those sources also contain a little saturated fat.


Cholesterol Effects

The most common belief about why we should avoid saturated fat is because it raises cholesterol and thus contributes to heart disease risk. For most people, this effect is negligible at best, but there are hyper-responders to saturated fat that need to be careful. People with Familial Hypercholesterolemia (a disorder resulting in chronically high LDL cholesterol) or the ApoE4 gene (which increases the risks for atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and early cognitive decline) should avoid saturated fats (and drastically increase their omega-3 intake), but for most people it can actually improve their cholesterol profile.

Saturated fat can raise LDL cholesterol (known as the bad kind of cholesterol), but it also raises HDL (the good kind that actually helps clear LDL from your system). We’ve more recently learned that there are different classes of LDL cholesterol as well, and some are far more harmful than others. Saturated fat tends to create large, fluffy particles of LDL that are not as harmful and less likely to cause cardiovascular problems. The real risks come from small, dense particles of LDL. These tiny particles are more likely to stick to the surface of blood vessels and they are also more likely to be oxidized, which is what accelerates atherosclerosis.

These particles are formed from eating refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup. It’s why low-fat, high-carb diets seem to make LDL worse and often increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Even worse, the supposedly “heart-healthy” diets that try to replace saturated fat with soybean or corn oils (rich in omega-6 fatty acids that we already tend to get too much of in processed foods) actually have been shown to increase the risk of death from heart disease even when they do decrease cholesterol levels.

It’s not about getting rid of LDL cholesterol, it’s about replacing the small, dense particles formed by processed sugars with larger particles formed by saturated fats. Reducing LDL cholesterol does have it’s benefits, and the best way to do that is to reduce your levels of stress and increase your balance of fibrous vegetables, healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids like fish and nuts, and monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocado which have been shown to significantly reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Also remember, LDL cholesterol is most dangerous when it’s oxidized and exercise has been shown to reduce levels of oxidized-LDL in the bloodstream.

Quick note on statins: Seeing as how the American Heart Association has recently expanded the recommendations for statin use, I wanted to point out a risk-factor that is known by the pharmaceutical company and the medical community, but one I don’t hear spoken of at all. Statins have been shown to cause insulin resistance and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 10 percent in men and double that in women. I find it odd that one of the new factors for recommending statins is if the person is already diabetic. The current belief is that the benefits from statins outweighs the risks from causing/aggravating diabetes, but many doctors and scientists disagree that putting healthy people on statins is worth this risk. I also think the well-known side-effect of muscle pain is more likely to reduce movement in this already sedentary group when that’s the last thing they need. I know our culture looks to pills first to solve our problems, but I highly recommend discussing all the risks with your doctor before hopping on this medication for the rest of your life. No medication is side-effect free. You just need to decide if the side-effects are worth it.


Circadian “Jet Lag”

I mentioned previously that saturated fats throw off your circadian rhythms and effectively “jet lags” your internal clock. This not only impacts how your body processes the food you eat, but your sleep cycle as well. A previous article described how eating saturated fat too close to bedtime causes disrupted sleep, but new research shows how the saturated fat jet lag carriers into the next day causing afternoon drowsiness. Subjects with the highest saturated fat intake were 78 percent more likely to suffer daytime sleepiness (independent of body weight). Once again, saturated fat is fine in your diet, but for best results, it should be consumed earlier in the day.

Interferes with Insulin Receptors

Saturated fat lessens insulin sensitivity in the short-term by suppressing adiponectin secretions and interfering with insulin receptors. This is why saturated fat and refined sugars don’t mix. The two together will cause increased fat storage due to elevated levels of insulin in your system for an extended period of time.


Harder to Remove from Fat Cells

Once the insulin puts that saturated fat into your fat cells, it is then naturally harder to remove. [Studies][ have shown that your body can mobilize 50 percent more stored fat during exercise when your diet is composed primarily of unsaturated fats. They also found that the fat cells themselves were larger with a diet that was primarily composed of saturated fats. This is why I always recommend grass-fed beef and dairy as part of your diet because they contain high amounts of CLA, a fatty acid that has been shown to help with weight loss. One of the ways it does this is by preventing fat cells from being able to bloat and expand to hold more fat. If your fat containers can only hold so much, you will naturally slim down. I recommend everyone add CLA to their diets whether they’re trying to lose weight or not because it reduces the risks of many types of cancer, improves blood pressure, reduces cholesterol levels, and reduces inflammation. Back to the subject of saturated fat, just try to limit the amount of refined carbs you eat with saturated fat. The carbs are what will cause your body to store it, but once it’s stored, it will be harder to get rid of.

Raises Testosterone Levels

I figured I should end the discussion on the good and bad of saturated fat with one final benefit (for the guys anyway). A study found that higher levels of saturated fats or monounsaturated fats (avocados, olive oil, and nuts) raised testosterone levels, but polyunsaturated fats (fish, vegetable oils, and seeds) lowered testosterone levels. As I mentioned in the article on Fueling Body Building, increasing your percentage of dietary protein too high also decreases testosterone levels and this same study confirms it. Your body needs fat to build all kinds of hormones, and trying to cut down too low on fat reduces your body’s ability to repair itself, grow new muscle, and maintain proper function.


How and When to Eat Saturated Fat

Now that I’ve gone back and forth on the good and bad of saturated fat, let me lay out some simple concepts on when to eat it and when to replace it.

  1. Eat the bulk of saturated fats from meat, eggs, and dairy early in the day at breakfast and lunch.

  2. Look for yogurt with “active cultures” for the probiotic effects.

  3. Cook meats and vegetables in butter or coconut oil. Cook carbohydrate rich foods in olive oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, etc.

  4. Limit the amount of carbs you consume with saturated fats. If you must have them together, try to eat the carbs 15 minutes later.

  5. Switch to meats with polyunsaturated fats at night like fish and grass-fed beef.

  6. Don’t avoid saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats. Incorporate all of them into your diet.

  7. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. If it can sit on a shelf unrefrigerated, assume the worst.

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