After reading the previous articles on what saturated fats are, the benefits of saturated fats, and on why saturated fats are bad for us, what can we conclude? Should saturated fats be included as part of a healthy diet? And if yes, which foods would you include? And which ones should be avoided? Let’s start answering these questions:
Do I have to eat saturated fats to be healthy?
When it comes to saturated fats, it’s important to remember that none of the saturated fats are essential to eat because our body can make them on its own from other raw materials. The only essential fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (an unsaturated omega 3 fatty acid), and linoleic acid (an unsaturated omega 6 fatty acid). So it’s not a question of “I have to eat saturated fats to be healthy”. It’s more a question of: “Which saturated fats are ok for me to eat?” or “Which saturated fats may benefit me in some way?”
Which saturated fatty foods are safe to eat?
Generally, it is the short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids which seem to have few negative impacts on health, whilst the long-chain fatty acids like palmitic acid and myristic acid are the main culprits causing problems. Unfortunately, foods that contain short and medium chain saturated fatty acids usually also contain these harmful long chain fats.
For example, if you look at butter, 43% of its saturated fat content is the harmful palmitic acid (16:0) whilst only about 22.3% of the saturated fats are short and medium chain fats that have beneficial impacts. Does this mean that butter is good or bad for you? It’s a difficult question to answer. Perhaps the best answer is that butter has it’s good points as well as its bad points to consider and is neither entirely good for you nor entirely bad for you. Having said that, if you’re someone with already skyhigh cholesterol, you probably should avoid eating foods like butter that are rich in palmitic acid which may further raise your cholesterol. In my opinion, for those with normal cholesterol levels, a small amount of butter in the diet (say a small knob a day) would be ok as part of a healthy diet, as long as it’s not eaten excessively and as long as you don’t indulge yourself in plenty of other foods containing high amounts of palmitic and myristic acids.
What about other saturated fat-rich foods?
Cheese again is mostly composed of palmitic acid, with this making up around 40% of the saturated fat content. At the same time, cheeses also contain the beneficial short and medium chain fatty acids. Goat’s cheese in particular is high in these beneficial saturated fats, where about 31.6% of the saturated fat content is composed of these beneficial short and medium-chain saturated fats. Cow’s cheese has lower amounts of these beneficial fats, measuring at about 20% or so. So is cheese ok to eat? Like butter, perhaps in moderation, it is ok, but it’s important to remember that the majority of its saturated fat content is the unhealthy palmitic acid so it would not be recommended for people at high risk of heart disease nor for people suffering from high cholesterol. If you like cheese, goat’s cheese certainly has an edge on cow’s cheese in terms of its amounts of healthier saturated fats, so goat’s cheese is the healthier cheese option.
As a general rule, virtually all fats have palmitic acid as their most abundant saturated fat. There are a few exceptions to this rule and one of these is Coconut Oil. Coconut oil’s main saturated fat is lauric acid (12:0), which makes up 51.6% of the total saturated fat content (vs only 9.5% palmitic acid). Having said that, coconut oil is quite high in the LDL-raising myristic acid (14:0), where this makes up 19.4% of the fat content. Although high in medium-chain saturated fats, coconut oil has very few beneficial short chain fatty acids. So should you eat coconut oil? Personally, I would alternate between using Coconut Oil and butter in cooking (both in small amounts of about a knob a day) as part of a healthy diet. Certainly when applying heat in food preparation, coconut oil or butter are preferential because they are more stable at higher temperatures compared with unsaturated fats like olive or canola oil that are more prone to oxidation and free radical formation.
Another fat where palmitic acid isn’t the dominant saturated fatty acid, is cocoa butter and cocoa. Here the dominant fatty acid is stearic acid (18:0), where this makes up 55.6% of the total saturated fat content, and palmitic acid makes up 42.5%. As you can see, there is still a fair amount of LDL-raising palmitic acid to make cocoa a “to be eaten in moderation” food too.
When it comes to animal fats, they are mostly composed of palmitic acid, and have virtually no beneficial medium-chain or short-chain saturated fats. This means that on the whole, there are no benefits to eating animal fat.
Getting your body to make its own healthy short-chain saturated fatty acids
Since eating foods rich in short-chain fatty acids usually also means consuming the unhealthy long-chain saturated fatty acids, it leads to the question: Is there a way to just get the good fatty acids in without the bad ones? The answer is yes. You can help your body make the beneficial short-chain fatty acids. Or to be more precise, you can help your body’s friendly bacteria make them for you!
Our guts are filled with beneficial bacteria. In fact, one estimate says that we have 10 times more bacterial cells in our gut than we have human cells in our whole body! (Savage 1977). One of their beneficial roles is to make acetic, propionic and butyric acid from fibre. The more fibre you have in your diet, the more food these bacteria have to make these beneficial short-chain fatty acids for you. So get munching on those veggies and wholegrains!
The bottom line on saturated fats?
The bottom line on why we avoid saturated fat foods is because on the whole, their chemical make-up means that the dominant saturated fatty acid is a harmful one (palmitic acid acid usually), meaning that we probably should avoid eating saturated fat foods for optimal health. Having said that, there is a place for them in cooking, and for other beneficial uses of saturated fats. In some cases supplementation of individual short-chain or medium-chain saturated fatty acids like butyric acid and caprylic acid may be indicated as part of a nutritional therapeutic program.