Are saturated fats really that bad for us? If you have been following the news over the past week, you may have noticed a story doing the rounds condemning the use of coconut oil, which has left a lot of people confused and worried about using it.
With this in mind, we thought we’d give you an overview of fats to (hopefully) clear up a bit of the confusion and reassure you that you can safely use coconut oil and consume saturated fats without causing adverse effects to your health.
What are fats?
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A, could not be absorbed without some fat in the diet. Fat also supplies the body with energy. It contains more energy than any other nutrient (9 calories per gram).
There are different types of fat, including saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats.
Trans fats are associated with negative health effects, including heart disease so avoid as much as you can (trans fats are found in junk food).
Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) may actually lower the risk for some diseases, including some cancers and heart disease. In addition, mono and polyunsaturated fats actually raise good cholesterol levels while lowering bad cholesterol. These are found in olive oil, fish and nuts.
Unfortunately not all saturated fats are created equal, “saturated fat” covers several different types of fatty acids, like stearic acid, lauric acid (that’s the one in coconut oil), and myristic acid. All of these different fatty acids have different effects on the body, and foods that contain “saturated fat” contain different combinations of them. So just studying just “saturated fat” is very imprecise.
The biggest sources of saturated fats happen to be in junk food, namely; store bought pizza, biscuits, cakes etc. Of course there is a lot more going on in these foods than just saturated fat. As mentioned above, trans fats and sugar are usually in higher quantities and play a huge part in negative health. In this context, it means that a diet “high in saturated fats” tends to be a diet “high in junk food”.
Most actual foods contain more than one type of fat. Most animal fats are roughly equal parts saturated and monounsaturated. So unless you’re going around eating pure saturated fat, what we need to concentrate on is how different foods, affect your health.
Why do we need fats?
Your body needs fats to function, in this case we are specifically looking at the affects of saturated fat in your diet and what it is used for within your body.
Brain Health – The majority of your brain is fat and cholesterol. Weird, but true. The vast majority of that fat is saturated fat. Your brain needs saturated fat to grow, regenerate, and stay healthy.
Cardiovascular Health – Saturated fats provide so many wonderful benefits for your heart and circulatory system. For example, lauric and stearic acids found in saturated fats can actually help regulate cholesterol levels. In addition, dietary saturated fats can reduce levels of lipoprotein(a), a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Bone Health – Saturated fat is necessary for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bone. Without fat you’ll have poor bone density and therein comes the increased risk of degeneration and injury.
Immune Health – Without sufficient saturated fats in white blood cells, their ability to recognise and destroy foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, and fungi is impaired.
Nervous System Health – Think of saturated fat as the “insulation” coating for your nervous system (or your internal wiring). When you lack this insulation you become more susceptible to external and internal stress. Certain saturated fats even function as signaling messengers themselves. A low saturated fat diet can cause poor communication between the cells of your body and result in several catastrophic problems.
Don’t over do it!
This all sounds fantastic I hear you say but the bottom line is really that naturally-occurring saturated fat from whole foods is not dangerous, in moderation. Coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, grass fed animal fats, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, and numerous other natural foods that contain saturated fats are all beneficial. The problem is that many people have taken this a step too far and have been eating more and more saturated fat believing that it promotes health (bulletproof coffee anyone?), yet in high quantities it’s likely to have the opposite effect.
So let’s make this clear, we should not fear, nutrient-dense fat, however, we should not go to extremes when including it in our diet. The “everything in moderation” mantra certainly rings true. If we stick to a varied diet, with sources of high quality proteins, fruit and vegetables we have the best chances of boosting our health and avoiding disease.