Food Myths Debunked: Are Saturated Fats Always Bad for You?

6 minute read

You want to eat healthier, so instead of hopping on a trendy diet, you follow the general guidelines you hear over and over because they must be right. But are they?

It turns out that there may be some fallacies in what you’ve been told is a healthy diet, and those fallacies have been around for a long time. A now largely debunked diet from 1861 is at the center of this confusion and is core to the belief that saturated fats should be avoided as much as possible.

An article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology takes a deeper look at how this diet, called the “diet-heart hypothesis,” came about and how it lacks an actual scientific basis that proves saturated fats are bad. But, even without the concrete evidence behind it, health professionals and others jumped on the non-saturated fats bandwagon.

What Is Saturated Fat?

All fats are considered macronutrients, which means we eat a lot of them to get the energy that fuels our bodies. Each molecule of fat is made of one glycerol molecule and three types of fatty acids, which can be saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. Because fats aren’t separated that way as we eat them, each type of fatty acid is mixed together. One type, saturated fatty acids, are the primary fatty acids responsible for helping neutralize lipid levels, we’ll focus on that one.

Diving deeper into the science of it, saturation is related to the number of double bonds in the molecule. Saturated fatty acids have no double bonds, which means all the carbon atoms are thoroughly saturated with hydrogen atoms.

Saturated fats you regularly encounter include fatty meats, lard, full-fat dairy, coconuts, coconut oil, palm oil, and dark chocolate. All fats contain nine calories per gram, no matter what their saturation level is.

Fats and Cholesterol

Back to the “diet-heart hypothesis”. Because heart disease was the leading cause of death during the 20th century (as it still is), eating healthy and lifestyle change became a major concern for North Americans.

Researchers were quick to begin studies into why this phenomenon was happening, and what could be done about it. It was soon learned that saturated fats seemed to increase an individual’s cholesterol levels.

It's been known that high cholesterol was linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The assumption was made that if saturated fats increase cholesterol and cholesterol causes heart disease, then saturated fats should be avoided.

A Deeper Look at Cholesterol

While that assumption seems fair, it’s not entirely valid because there was still a lot to be learned about cholesterol.

While people were told to avoid saturated fats, the science on cholesterol evolved. It turns out that not all cholesterol is bad, and it might not be as closely linked to cardiovascular issues as once believed.

Our bodies need cholesterol for many different functions, in fact, some of it is so vital that your body makes it on its own. It’s the cholesterol that finds its way in the bloodstream that can pose some dangers.

There are two types of cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is often called the bad one, leaving HDL to be the good guy, by comparison.

Further research suggests that not all LDL is created equally, that smaller particles may be more dangerous than larger ones. This means that having a high LDL that consists of a few large particles is not necessarily linked to heart disease.

Interestingly, studies have proven that eating saturated fats cannot only boost both HDL and LDL cholesterol, but it can change small LDL particles to less dangerous, large LDL particles.

| Related: The Truth About Fats: Unhealthy Vs. Healthy + Types & Benefits |

A Modern View of Saturated Fats

A fascinating analysis of 21 studies on dietary saturated fat, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. The results of this data showed that there was no significant evidence linking dietary saturated fats with an increased risk of either of these diseases.

A review published in the Cochrane Library looked at dietary fats and cardiovascular risks and found that replacing some saturated fats may reduce the risk of heart disease. Replacing the fats with starchy foods shows no clear health benefits, and there is no substantial evidence to prove which type of fat is more beneficial.

While saturated fats are redeeming themselves in the eyes of researchers, trans fats are proving to be more dangerous. An article in Harvard Health Publishing illustrates the modern approach to all dietary fats.

Trans fats turn healthy oils into solids. In going through this conversion process, it seems as if the healthy part of these oils disappear, and there are no longer any health benefits. Trans fats are currently banned in the United States, but throughout the 20th century, they appeared in many foods as a replacement for saturated fats.

The Bottom Line

The conclusion seems to be that saturated fats are not the villain they were once thought to be and that, in the quest to avoid them, more dangerous ingredients were used to achieve low-fat status.

While saturated fats do indeed raise cholesterol levels, it must be noted that they raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) levels, and they can boost the dimensions of small LDL particles to larger ones, so they’re not as dangerous.

Finally, it appears as though reducing dietary saturated fats can help protect your heart but only if you’re replacing them with healthy alternatives. This means that a well-balanced diet is the best way to boost heart health.

The food myth is that all saturated fats are bad for you all the time, and this is simply not true. A well-moderated diet that includes some saturated fats does not show an increased risk for heart disease.

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