Saturated Fat: Healthy Or Not?

Saturated fatty acids have long been considered “bad” fats: Thanks to numerous studies in recent years, nutrition experts now see this in a somewhat more differentiated light.

What are saturated fats?

All fats contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids – however, the composition is different. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids lies in their molecular structure: the individual atoms of the fatty acids are held together by pairs of electrons. If two pairs of electrons act as a link, there is a so-called double bond. Saturated fatty acids have no double bond; Unsaturated fatty acids have at least one double bond. If fatty acids have two or more double bonds, they are called polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Saturated fat makes fat solid. You can tell from the consistency of the fat whether it has a high proportion of saturated fatty acids: butter with 66 percent and coconut fat with 92 percent are among the fats with the highest proportion of saturated fatty acids.

What foods contain saturated fat?

Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal products such as butter, milk, cream, meat, sausage, and lard – but also some plant-based foods. An example is coconut oil, which tops the list of foods with the highest percentage of saturated fat. Other examples include cocoa butter and palm fat.

Fish is an exception among animal foods: Most fish oils contain large amounts of unsaturated fatty acids. So-called omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, mackerel, and herring. These polyunsaturated fatty acids are important for cellular energy production.

Are Saturated Fats Unhealthy?

The question of whether saturated fat is healthy or unhealthy is not easy to answer. For decades, butter, lard, and the like were considered the main culprits in the development of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Nutrition experts therefore often advise replacing animal fats with vegetable ones to minimize the risk of these diseases.

But in recent years, some studies have suggested that simply swapping “animal for plant-based” is not the best health solution. In a meta-analysis on saturated fatty acids published in 2015, Canadian researchers evaluated 73 studies that dealt with the connection between a diet rich in saturated fatty acids and the subsequent risk of disease. The analysis showed no increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, or stroke due to the high consumption of saturated fat.

The Canadian researchers exposed the so-called trans fats – unsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils that are processed industrially – as unhealthy for the heart. Accordingly, high consumption of these fats increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 21 percent. Trans fats are found, for example, in French fries, baked goods, and frozen foods.

Acquittal for saturated fat?

Even if the Canadian study seems to do away with the bad reputation of saturated fatty acids, it cannot be considered an acquittal for sausage and lard. Firstly, it is a purely observational study; it can therefore prove no causal relationships. On the other hand, the study did not differentiate between different foods, which would make sense in this case.

Certainly, not all foods with a high proportion of saturated fatty acids can be regarded as harmless to health – this includes meat and sausage products, for example. On the other hand, some research suggests that dairy products high in saturated fat may even be beneficial to health. A Swedish study on the role of fat consumption in the development of diabetes, also published in 2015, showed that high consumption of fatty dairy products such as cheese or cream reduces the risk of diabetes, while high meat consumption increases this risk.

According to nutrition experts, one explanation is that meat contains different saturated fatty acids than dairy products. In addition, other ingredients in the various foods probably play a role in how they affect the organism.

How much-saturated fat can I eat?

It is therefore certainly not necessary and probably not advisable to completely avoid foods with a high proportion of saturated fatty acids. The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) recommends covering seven to ten percent of the total fat intake with saturated fatty acids. Most Germans exceed these values: on average, women consume 15 percent of their fat intake in the form of saturated fatty acids, and men 16 percent.

Against the background of the current research situation, it probably makes more sense to pay attention to the right choice of food – for example, to minimize the proportion of meat and sausages on the menu. However, trans fats should be avoided – because these processed fats have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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