A Beginner’s Guide To Saturated Fats

fat contentA while back I posted an Introduction to Fat and decided that there was enough important information to pass along that I would do a short series on the different fats and how to make some healthy choices when it comes to them. My goal here is not to overwhelm you with all sorts of information about lipids, cellular health, etc. What I hope to do is give you some basic understanding and maybe some recommendations that will help you make some Positively Healthy decisions about your own daily diet.

Like I mentioned before, saturated fats come primarily from animal sources (meats and dairy) as well as tropical oils (coconut, palm).Pretty much all fats are made up of a mix of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids (and trans fats if they’ve been hydrogenated) in varying degrees and that oils that have a higher percentage of saturated fats will be solid at room temperature.

When you talk about saturated fats, more often than not the topic of cholesterol comes up… in particular the link between eating too much saturated fat and the effect is has on cholesterol. What most people don’t know is that your body actually makes cholesterol, it’s used by your body to help maintain cellular health and such, recycling it through your liver.

If you add cholesterol to your diet in the form of saturated fats, your body will cut down on what it produces. Problems can occur though if you are eating more than your body needs… then your body is stuck trying to figure out what to do with the rest.

Saturated fats contribute to all this because it appears they promote an increase in free cholesterol in the liver, which seems to reduce how your body is able to actually use cholesterol, raising the level of LDL (what you usually hear called “bad”) cholesterol in your blood.

Dietary fiber can help flush some of out of your system, but if there’s still too much of it floating around your blood stream it can lead to some serious problems because it can cause a build up of fatty plaque in your arteries, including those surrounding the heart. This then leads to increased risk of some major issues, from hypertension to heart attacks and strokes.

Now the HDL, or “good” cholesterol can actually help keep your arteries cleaned up a bit. And by making sure you include some good sources of dietary fiber in your meals you can actually get rid of some of that LDL cholesterol making it even easier for the HDL cholesterol to do it’s job.

So basically, you want to minimize how much of the fat you get in your diet comes from saturated fat source, right? Many suggest no more than about 7-10% of your daily calorie intake come from saturated fats (about 14-20grams on average). Well, it may not be quite that simple. Yes, stick to lean meats, minimize your consumption of things like bacon because saturated fats that come from animal sources definitely seem to raise your HDL cholesterol. But what about those tropical oils like coconut?

coconuts

Coconut oil was a pretty popular cooking oil years ago… most movie theater popcorn was made using it. But concerns over the amount of saturated fat in it raised a huge scare and it pretty quickly vanished from the scene. Lately however, science seems to have come to the rescue of coconut oil and it’s seeing a resurgence in popularity for cooking. BUT, (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) you need to be picky about your coconut oil.

Most of the earlier studies on the cholesterol raising effects of coconut oil were done on partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which leads to trans fats, and yea… is a bad thing. Lately though, you can find virgin coconut oils that are not be as bad as first thought.

Recent research is suggesting that not all saturated fats are created equal, and that the type of saturated fat found in coconut oil (lauric acid) is metabolized differently by the body, being used by the liver as energy and does raise LDL levels… and it also seems to raise HDL levels.

So what’s the bottom line? Like I said, overall keep your saturated fat intake low by sticking to lean meats, and for baking and a few other things coconut oil may very well be a “healthier” alternative some others as long as you buy coconut oil that is not hydrogenated at all… and it’s a good vegetarian/vegan alternative as well.

Photo Credit: vancanjay, Dan Iserman

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