Kiri Cole

Making you healthier one meal at a time 

Is Saturated Fat Bad for You?

“Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your 
blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.” This is from the American Heart Association’s website. And numerous 
other nutrition and medical authorities support this claim. Is this statement entirely true? This organization must know what it 
is talking about, right? 

Well, consider this. In the 1980s and 1990s, fat generally, not just saturated fat, was the villain. Medical researchers 
laid fertile ground for this idea years earlier with the renowned Seven Countries Study - established a link between heart 
disease, cholesterol, and fat - and other similar works that ultimately steered Americans away from fat. As the years passed, 
food manufacturers began to flood the market with low-fat and fat-free products, from cereal to muffins to ice cream. These 
manufacturers replaced their products’ fat content with sugar to make their foods palatable. With “fat is bad” as the mainstream dogma, Americans wholeheartedly embraced these highly processed, devitalized products to attain healthfulness and lose weight. Now, research shows that over the past 30 years as Americans reduced their caloric intake from fat, obesity rates have only soared. This is no surprise, as low-fat diets are usually high in processed carbohydrates, which induce weight gain. Still, the low-fat craze caused much more harm than simply disappointing dieters. The Harvard School of Public Health asserts that consuming these adulterated carbohydrates leads to chronic conditions as diabetes and heart disease. Ironically, recent research actually reveals that moderate- or high-fat diets facilitate MORE weight loss than low-fat diets. Wow, we were all bamboozled! And now, fat is no longer demonized, at least not completely. 

Today, everyone is focused on the type of fat. Unsaturated fat from olive oil and avocados is considered wholesome and nourishing. Saturated fat, however, is still the demon. After all, the American Heart Association (AHA) claims that saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease and other associated maladies, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many others in the medical community. Do you think the message is correct this time? No, unfortunately it is not. 

All fat is not created equal. The idea that saturated fat is homogeneous is a perfunctory generalization and a first-rate attempt to “dumb down” information for the public. 

To understand the difference between saturated fat from a plant as coconut and from meat or dairy, you must examine fat’s composition. All fats contain a fatty acid and glycerol. A fatty acid consists of a straight chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms. At one end of the chain is a hydrogen atom and at the other end is glycerol, a type of alcohol. If a fat or fatty acid has one or more double bonds between carbon atoms, it is unsaturated, whereas if a fatty acid contains only single bonds between all carbon atoms, it is saturated. Unsaturated fats are further divided into monounsaturated (only one double bond between carbon atoms; i.e. olive oil), and polyunsaturated (two or more carbon atoms have double bonds; i.e. flax seed and fish oil). Besides these variances, fatty acid chains also differ in length. There are short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) (chains with 6 or fewer carbon atoms), medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) (chains containing between 6 and 12 carbon atoms), long chain fatty acids (LCFAs) (chains comprised of 13 to 21 carbon atoms), and very long chain fatty acids (VLCFAs) (chains consisting of 22 carbon atoms or more). 

Saturation and chain length, together, largely determine whether a fat is healthful or destructive. Long chain unsaturated fatty acids compose heart-healthy olive oil. On the other hand, meat and dairy contain long chain saturated fatty acids, which some research indicates elevates cholesterol and as such heart disease risk. 

Many studies show that long chain saturated fatty acids undermine your health and promote cardiovascular disease (CVD). Research in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism asserts that long chain saturated fatty acids promote atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), a condition that heightens the risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. Additionally, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in dairy and saturated fat reduced high blood pressure, a precursor of CVD, more significantly than a diet low in fruits, vegetables, and dairy and high in saturated fat or one rich in fruits and vegetables, low in dairy, and high in saturated fat. These comparisons make evident that saturated fat compromises heart health. Moreover, two studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) provide further evidence that long chain saturated fatty acids are detrimental compared to other fats and can increase the risk of CVD. The first study compared low fat (LF - low in polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat), high fat (HF - low in polyunsaturated fat and high saturated fat), and high polyunsaturated fat (HPF - high in polyunsaturated fat and low in saturated fat) snacks. The research demonstrated that all snacks, including the HF one, reduced LDL (bad cholesterol), total cholesterol, and blood triglycerides (fat). The study also showed, however, that replacing the LF or HF snack with the HPF snack caused the most substantial decreases in cholesterol and triglycerides. Moreover, only the HPF snack reduced VLDL (bad cholesterol). After the HPF snack, the LF snack was most healthful, making it evident that the HF snack did not promote heart health to the same extent that the other snacks did. Another study reported in the AJCN demonstrated that a diet high in saturated fat as compared to one high in monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, and low in saturated fat leads to higher total and LDL cholesterol, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. (Note that this last study also reveals the health hazards of processed carbohydrates. It shows that if processed carbohydrates replace saturated fat, this can lead to a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol) and an increase in blood triglycerides, both of which raise CVD risk.) Based on these studies, an ideal diet is one that excludes processed carbohydrates, is high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, and is low in long chain saturated fatty acids.  

On the other hand, some studies suggest that saturated fat is not associated with CVD. It is no wonder the American public feels dazed and confused. The AJCN published research that evaluated 21 different studies regarding the association between saturated fat intake and CVD. This study concluded that there is no “significant evidence” indicating that saturated fat increases the risk of CVD. Some studies overseas also support this claim.

Clearly, hot embers still fuel the fiery debate regarding whether long chain saturated fatty acids truly increase CVD risk. This is largely not the case, however, with medium chain saturated fatty acids. Though some dissension exists in the scientific community, research consistently proves that medium chain saturated fatty acids, as those found in coconut, promote heart health. Coconut is more than 70% saturated fat. Lauric acid - a medium chain saturated fatty acid - comprises approximately 50% of it. A study in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism showed that coconut milk, which consists of the coconut meat and its water, increases HDL and lowers LDL. This makes coconut, despite its high saturated fat content, a heart-healthy food. Other research affirms this conclusion. A study in the AJCN investigated two Polynesian populations, the Pukapuka and Tokelau. These groups ate similarly; their diets were high in saturated fat primarily from coconut and low in dietary cholesterol and sugar. The Tokelauans obtained a much higher percentage of energy from coconut than the Pukapukans obtained, 63% versus 34%, and as such the Tokelauans’ saturated fat intake was higher. Consequently, the Tokelauans’ blood cholesterol levels were 35 to 40 grams higher than that of the Pukapukans. Tokelauans between 25 and 64 years old exhibited cholesterol levels that experts consider borderline high, between 200 and 239 mg/dL, with some even exceeding 240 mg/dL. Nevertheless, heart disease was very uncommon among these populations and no evidence existed suggesting that either population’s high saturated fat intake negatively impacted their health. Clearly, neither saturated fat from coconut nor elevated cholesterol levels compromised heart health here. This study makes you question the link between cholesterol and heart disease, a connection that some experts impugn, and wonder whether the source of saturated fat rather than the fat itself actually determines whether saturated fat promotes heart health or undermines it. Another study reported in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition supports coconut’s healthfulness. The study focused on the Minangkabau of Indonesia and investigated the link between coconut consumption and the risk of heart disease. According to the research, both the case group, which suffered from coronary heart disease, and the control group, which was comprised of healthy individuals, consumed equally high amounts of coconut. After examining both groups’ eating habits and lifestyles, the study revealed that the high consumption of saturated fat from coconut products, as coconut milk and oil, did not increase the risk of heart disease, as both groups ate this way. The intake of animal food, total protein, dietary cholesterol, and fewer plant-derived carbohydrates, however, did increase heart disease risk, and these eating habits were only prevalent among the case group. Finally, a report in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition emphasized that a clear distinction should be made between long chain and medium chain saturated fatty acids, as this study revealed that the medium chain saturated fatty acids that largely compose coconut oil make it as beneficial as olive oil. Research results showed that long-term consumption of medium chain saturated fatty acids reduced total cholesterol and LDL in study participants, as olive oil does. The researchers concluded that medium chain saturated fatty acids do not promote CVD risk factors.

So, is the AHA’s advice correct? No, it is not really accurate. First, some studies indicate that there is no link between saturated fat consumption and CVD. Conversely, numerous reports claim a firm association between CVD risk factors and saturated fat intake. Therefore, the link between saturated fat and heart disease is somewhat challengeable. Second, all saturated fat is not equal. The chain length largely determines whether saturated fat is healthful or destructive. Research shows both that long chain saturated fatty acids do not promote heart health to the same degree that unsaturated fats do and that saturated fat increases cholesterol and therefore the risk of CVD. Research habitually proves, however, that medium chain saturated fatty acids as those from coconut promote heart health, reducing LDL and total cholesterol and increasing HDL. 

Health advice continues to change as researchers make new discoveries. The reformed attitude toward fat today versus that of the 80s and 90s makes that clear. And now it is evident that all saturated fats are not evil either. In conclusion, you cannot fully depend on the AHA or any other organization for health information. You have to do your homework to discover the truth. Your well-being and vitality weigh in the balance.