The Revenge of Saturated Fat

by Denis Faye | January 3, 2012

WARNING: Today’s Real Fitness Nerd post goes to 11 on the Geek-o-meter, so make sure to have your pocket protector firmly in place before reading. In the event of a water landing, simply empty your Big Gulp of Mountain Dew and use the cup as a floatation device.

A few months ago, loyal Nerd Herders may remember that a post questioning saturated fat was discovered by a pack of rabid paleo eaters. I made a few attempts to debate with them, but it was a little little like trying to debate the sanctity of the pope with the guy who makes his big hats, so I cut and ran, letting them overwhelm my comments section with vitriol.

But, as the Klingons say, “bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay,” so by no means did I walk away from the topic entirely. Much like Rocky, I hunkered down in a Philadelphia meat locker and punched sides of beef until I had absorbed all of western science’s collected understanding of the saturated fats from the flanks I was so passionately abusing. In other words, I still have no idea if saturated fat is good or bad for you – and neither does anyone else. I do, however, have two theories.

1. I can find no convincing arguments why saturated fat is better for you than unsaturated fat or that it has any special benefits in the context of the standard diet. The body produces it on its own, so I see no reason we need to consume it. That’s a little like saying we need to eat straight glucose because our body manufactures that too.

2. I believe lumping all saturated fats together would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that more research needs to be done differentiating between the various saturated fats, or at least between long and short chain saturated fats.

Before I go into more detail, here’s a little background.

Contrary to what many a fad diet book will imply, humans need to eat fat to survive. Among other things, it serves as an energy source. It acts as a transport for fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, and K, as well as several phytonutrients. It adds structure to cell membranes and acts as a regulator for several hormones.

For our purposes, there are four kinds of fats, or “fatty acids” if you want to sound fancy: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (PUFAs), saturated, and trans. Generally speaking, trans fats are bad and monounsaturated fats are good. Saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are much more controversial.

If eaten properly, PUFAs are good for you, but we tend to eat an imbalanced ratio of them (too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s), which can lead to inflammation issues. Also, PUFAs aren’t very stable and when they go off (or “oxidize”) they become bad for you. If you avoid eating overly processed or heated PUFAs and get as many omega-3s as possible, you should be okay. (If you’re going to write in and flame about PUFAs, don’t bother. I just saved you a lot of effort by summing up all your arguments, only without the annoying spin. No need to thank me.)

All fat is made up of chains of atoms. The difference between sat fat and unsat fat is that, simply, a few carbon atoms in unsaturated fat aren’t “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Monounsaturated fat has one loose atom. Polyunsaturated has more.

And as long as we’re geeking out about chemistry, I’ll also point out the fact that different fats have different amounts of atoms. That’s what people mean when they refer to long, medium, or short chain fatty acids. Remember this. It’ll be important later.

Although I read a shitload of books to reach my conclusions, I have two primary sources. The first is a 2001 review by the Harvard School of Public Health in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition entitled “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review,” which pops up in a wide array of writings on the subject, from Catherine and Luke Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition to (my personal hero) Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

My second source is the most authoritative (read: not lame or poorly researched) pro-sat-fat book I could find: Dr. Mary Enig’s Know Your Fats. (Enig was the first real whistle blower on the dangers of trans fat, decades before the rest of the world figured it out.)

To my shock, Enig gave only two instances where she felt saturated fats were of particular benefit. First, she suggests, “research has shown that saturated fat in the diet is needed by the body to enable it to adequately convert the essential omega-3 fatty acid (ALA) to the elongated omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.” I found the study she cited and it turns out that she got it wrong(ish). According to Gerster, sat fats are marginally better than PUFAs for helping ALA convert, but not “needed.” Furthermore, this advice only really applies to vegans and vegetarians, given a healthy, more omnivorous diet should include EPA and DHA-rich foods such as fatty fish.

If you’re looking for a little 411 on this ALA/EPA/DHA nonsense, read this.

Second, Enig states, “there is strong evidence that some of the medium-chain SFAs such as lauric acid are essential since they are needed for maintaining the natural ability of the individual to fight potentially harmful microorganisms.”

Annoyingly, she didn’t properly cite this claim and my research only uncovered studies that either applied to soap or food packaging. These are excellent uses of lauric acid, but The Fitness Nerd hasn’t eaten soap since he was about five (not willingly, at least) and has only once eaten food packaging (I thought it was an especially chewy burrito) so the validity escapes me.

That said, lauric acid (the stuff you get in coconuts) may not be essential, but it could be beneficial. Here’s a study showing lauric acid raised HDL cholesterol in subjects, potentially making it a “heart healthy” fatty acid.

That brings me to my second point – not all saturated fats were created equal. Could it be that some are good and some are bad? The above-mentioned Harvard review states that “the association between saturated fat and CHD… was much weaker than that predicted by international comparisons.” However, some individual saturated fatty acids still look dodgy. Also from the review: “Saturated fatty acids with 12–16 carbon atoms tend to increase plasma total and LDL cholesterol levels, whereas stearic acid (18:0) does not have a cholesterol-raising effect in comparison with oleic acid (18:1). Among the cholesterol-raising saturated fatty acids, myristic acid (14:0) appears to be more potent than lauric acid (12:0) or palmitic acid (16:0), but the data are not entirely consistent”

In other words, some sat fats mess with cholesterol and others don’t. So, while saturated fat haters were too quick the judge, saturated fat lovers are also a bit hasty in categorically embracing this nutrient. Maybe the truth lies in looking at the various saturated fatty acids individually and weighing up their individual benefits and drawbacks.

At the end of the day, I think the answer is to focus on your own biochemical needs. Even Enig admits, “there isn’t any real evidence that everyone needs to consume exactly the same balance of fatty acids.” She also points out that it’s naïve to categorize most foods as sat fats or PUFAs, given both animal and plant-based fat sources tend to be a mix of both. With that in mind, the answer might be as simple as a little self-analysis. Is your current diet working for you? How do you feel? How’s your blood work? Are you having any issues such as inflammation or high LDL cholesterol? If all this looks good, your sat fat levels are probably pretty right for you. If not, it might be time to start experimenting a little, no matter what your Crossfit trainer tells you.

Fancy List o’ References:

  • Beerman, K. & McGuire, M. (2011). Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food. Belmont, CA. Wadworth Cengage Learning.
  • Enig, M. (2000). Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol. Bethesda, MA: Bethesda Press.
  • Hu, F., Manson, J., & Willett, W. (2001). Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 20:1 5-19. Retrieved from http://www.jacn.org/content/20/1/5.short
  • Gerster, H. (1998). Can Adults Adequately Convert a-Linolenic Acid (18:3n-3) to Eicosapentaenoic Acid (20:5n-3) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (22:6n-3) International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Retrieved from http://verlag.hanshuber.com/Zeitschriften/IJVNR/98/vn9803.html
  • Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester AD, & Katan MB. (2003) Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. American Journal for Clinical Nutrition 77(5),1146-55. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12716665
  • Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York, NY. Penguin Press.
  • Shanahan, C. & Shanahan, L. (2009). Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. Lawai, HI: Big Box Books.
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25 thoughts on “The Revenge of Saturated Fat

  1. Anonymous

    Naturally occuring Trans fats are bad? Nope. Or at least not proven bad (always the caveat). Artificially created trans fats are bad. With studies to back it up (said studies are riddled with falsities as well though).

    You seem to be a professional lumper. Let’s lump all things together and declare a bold (but false) generalization! Saturated fat? BAD! Trans Fat? BAD! BAD! Pork Rinds aren’t a full protein so all protein is BAD! BAD! BAD!

    ‘General Lumper’ should be the title of this blog. Your fans could be Lumper Humpers.

  2. D Faye

    Did you even read the blog? It’s not about trans fats. And I specifically say sat fats are all different, as in “I believe lumping all saturated fats together would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    Make sure your gun is loaded before you shoot, cowboy.

  3. Steve Edwards

    Anon is a very strange person.

    Nice work, particularly the logical conclusion. I find it strange more people don’t use personal examples when evaluating their diets. I guess that might be too much personal responsiblity to burden.

  4. David Brown

    My take on saturated fats is that they are benign over a wide range of intakes as long as they are consumed in the context of adequate supportive nutrition. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/bu-dcd051811.php In addition, any effects saturated fats have on cholesterol levels appear to be physiological, not pathological, and likely beneficial.http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/tau-cn050511.php What we all need to watch out for is excessive omega-6 intake. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201103/your-brain-omega-3 The omega fatty acids may very well constitute a health hazard in the amounts currently being consumed. http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/fats-degeneration3.shtml

  5. D Faye

    David –

    Thank you for chiming in. Your first study backs up my hypothesis in that it targets a specific sat fat acid, CLA, which I’ve also been researching. Interesting stuff. Your second study, that LDL isn’t bad, is a valid claim but highly controversial. Even in holistic circles is this theory/research up for debate. As for study #3, I already state the omega 3/6 thing in my post. As for your last link, it pumps up coconut oil, which I’ve already conceded might be good due to the lauric acid.

    So it looks like we agree entirely!!!!

  6. z90xhccs

    I still can’t figure out whether or not you think saturated fatty acids in the diet are acceptable or good or bad or what. You seem to think of them as, for the most part, okay but not better than other fatty acids, maybe? Whenever you write about them it seems to be with like a passive-aggressive begrudging tone, but maybe I just imagine that.

  7. D Faye

    That’s because I don’t think anyone knows for sure. I think you need to look at your own body and see how it reacts to sat fats. That’s were the truth lies. People seem to need absolutes so badly in nutrition, but there are so few real absolutes. It really depends on the individual.

    That said, there’s a lot more to learn about the individual sat fats. I think research is required.

    And yeah, I am begrudging a little. It’s hard to be 41 and say that something you’ve believed all your life – that saturated fats are categorically unhealthy – could be wrong. You might try it in a couple decades, junior. 😉

  8. Anonymous

    I found this to be a very interesting read. There is no one-size-fits-all for anything. There is so much we can control and then other things we cannot control. My great grandmother ate lard and beef and lived to be 99; healthy as a horse until the day she died. But in her day, she was up at sunrise and worked until well past sunset. We can read articles on nutrition and then figure out what works best for us as individuals. I’m not as well informed or intelligent as the others posting comments on this, but I found this article to be extremely well written and found it to be very informative. Great job! Shannon

  9. Kim Kash

    Here’s a hippy dippy, get-in-touch-with-your-inner-self, non-scientific lumper reporting in.

    Researchers will keep scrutinizing dietary fats in smaller and smaller cross-sections for years and decades, and that’s important academic work. Some day those findings will have practical implications for all of us. For people just trying to figure out how to make decisions about what to put on the dinner table, though, I believe it’s as you say: “the answer might be as simple as a little self-analysis. Is your current diet working for you? How do you feel?”

    It’s great to know the chemistry behind the foods we eat, but in the end isn’t the implication always the same? Just eat mostly whole, organic, unprocessed foods, get plenty of sleep and exercise, pay attention to how you feel and adjust your habits accordingly–and relax about it!

  10. Coach Jeff

    I knew it! Thanks so much for taking the time, D. As usual, I find your work valuable. This time even timely. I have been experimenting with my fat consumption and find significant benefit from some of the saturated fat I’ve been watching (eggs and beef specifically). I should get blood work done before this goes too far but for now I feel like Wolverine!! Here’s to becoming one’s own favorite lab rat! (I think Steve said that once…)

  11. Anonymous

    “Generally speaking, trans fats are bad and monounsaturated fats are good.”

    Exhibit a for Lumping. Saddle up…

  12. Tom Krakauer

    If Faye has a gift for lumping
    Anon has a gift for harrumphing
    While Faye signs his name
    Anon must complain
    and repeat oer and oer the same grumping

    If fats you would try understanding
    of literature you must be demanding
    opinions are simply that–
    interpreted facts in a hat–
    best evidence cushions your landing

    Anon fires his guns to frustrate
    Faye’s footnotes he tries to berate
    but himself he demeans
    when he writes silly beans
    and toots unsupported opinions as great

  13. Anonymous

    So, when someone decides to remain ‘Anon’ on the internet, that somehow discredits his/her opinion? That doesn’t really make sense.

    And no, I’m not the Anon with accusatory lumping allegations.

    You know you can turn off the Anon option right?

  14. D Faye

    I think it does if you’re going to attack something. Criticism has much more value if the critic has the integrity to put their name behind it. It has nothing to do with the internet. It’s a question of honor and dignity.

    If it’s good enough for the Bill of Rights, it’s good enough for me. (see: 6th Amendment.)

  15. D Faye

    But I leave the anons on because it makes for lively conversation. Like Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

  16. Pingback: Volumetrics: Fill up to thin out | Denis Faye

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