What You Need to Know About Saturated Fat in the Diet

The Truth About Saturated Fat

Meal of saturated fat
Saturated fat meal. (c) Getty Images, Andrew Kolb, Radius Images

Dietary Advice in Weight Training and Bodybuilding

Although athletes and heavy exercisers may need more carbohydrate in the diet, the general pattern of healthy eating is well established. Traditional dietary advice for prevention of heart disease says we should keep our intake of saturated fat low and eat more unsaturated fats like vegetable seed and nut oils and olive oil, which have some saturated fat but are much higher in the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

Although some vegetable oils like coconut and palm oils are high in saturated fat, most saturated fat in the diet comes from animal products like meats and dairy foods.

Unlike the essential polyunsaturated fats, we don’t need to eat saturated fat because the body makes it, and stores it, in response to excess food energy intake.

About Saturated Fats

Saturated fat has been linked to an increased heart disease risk for many decades but recently evidence has been published that questions that link. It seems that the crucial but subtle modifying factor is what you replace saturated fat with in your diet. Logically, if you remove saturated fat and eat alternative foods, the quality of the replacements are important.

As it turns out, replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates, even if low or non-fat, does not reduce heart disease risk, nor does trans fat consumption. Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated oils and fats does reduce heart disease risk -- and so may monounsaturated oils and wholegrain carbohydrates, but that evidence is less clear.

As described in this recent article from the Harvard School of Public Health, Is Butter Really Back, nothing has changed much with regard to saturated fat, except to be careful what you replace it with.

Most vegetable oils such as olive, sunflower, peanut and canola have small amounts of saturated fat, but much higher levels of unsaturated fat -- poly- and monounsaturated fat.

Animal products on the other hand, have most saturated fat and some unsaturated fats. Coconut and palm oils have the most saturated fat of the vegetable oils.

Saturated Fats and Heart Disease

The complexities of nutritional factors in heart disease are substantial because we don’t just eat one type of food. Various components of a meal may have different impacts on your heart and arteries in relation to the other components of the diet. For example, some saturated fat in the diet is probably not a problem if you eat a lot of fiber from fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and include plenty of unsaturated fats in the diet. Body weight (body mass index) and fitness and exercise, and family history also have an impact in regulating heart disease. Plucking out one risk factor can produce conflicting results, which the critics inevitably focus upon.

Even so, the best way to study the effects of nutrition on heart disease is to look at dietary patterns and not isolated indicators of proposed heart health like individual dietary components. It’s clear that the western dietary pattern high in red meat, saturated fat and cholesterol, refined carbohydrates and sugars is unhealthy and that in contrast, the Mediterranean pattern low in red meat, saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fresh plant foods is much healthier for the prevention of heart disease and probably cancer.

The Truth About Saturated Fat

For heart disease risk reduction, and general long-term protection from chronic disease, the evidence points to diets relatively low in saturated fat and higher in polyunsaturated and possibly monounsaturated fats, with an abundance of plant foods including whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, fruits and vegetables, and low to moderate in meat and low in added sugars.

This is the Mediterranean, plant-food dietary pattern. The high animal-food dietary pattern of some low-carb, Paleo and associated dietary agendas do not have evidence of long-term safety, and may even be harmful.


Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Apr;93(4):684-8. The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010? Astrup A, Dyerberg J, Elwood P, Hermansen K, Hu FB, Jakobsen MU, Kok FJ, Krauss RM, Lecerf JM, LeGrand P, Nestel P, Risérus U, Sanders T, Sinclair A, Stender S, Tholstrup T, Willett WC.

Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2010 Nov;12(6):384-90. Saturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Siri-Tarino PW(1), Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM.

Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jan 13.

Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Faulkner D, et al. A dietary portfolio approach to cholesterol reduction: combined effects of plant sterols, vegetable proteins, and viscous fibers in hypercholesterolemia. Metabolism. 2002 Dec;51(12):1596-604.

Nicholls SJ, Lundman P, Harmer JA, Cutri B, Griffiths KA, Rye KA, Barter PJ, Celermajer DS. Consumption of saturated fat impairs the anti-inflammatory properties of high-density lipoproteins and endothelial function. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006 Aug 15;48(4):715-20. (Heart Research Inst, Sydney)

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