Natural Health Tips

The Importance of Saturated Fats in the Diet

Saturated fats have been labeled as "bad" fats, and a common misunderstanding is that reducing saturated fats or fats from the diet altogether means weight loss and better health. However, a reasonable amount of saturated fats in the daily diet is essential for health and longevity, and evidence is showing that saturated fats prevent heart disease, osteoporosis and even cancer.

Saturated fats are mostly from animal foods, but are also found in tropical oils like palm and coconut oils. The saturated fats in our diets are generally derived from four types:

  • stearic (animal fat and chocolate)
  • lauric (coconut oil)
  • palmitic (palm oil, animal products and dairy)
  • myristic (coconut oil and dairy)

Humans have always consumed saturated fats, through animal sources and tropical oils, and saturated fatty acids are found in breast milk; they are essential for growing infants and toddlers. They provide taste, consistency and stability to foods.

Saturated fats are built into cell membranes; they cushion and protect them and provide energy to the kidneys. Palmitic fats are responsible for important signaling and stabilizing processes in the body. When these fats are lacking, cell and organ growth factors become dysfunctional.

Myristic acid stabilizes proteins, including those used by the immune system and those that fight tumors. Stearic acid is converted into an unsaturated fat by liver enzymes during digestion, and lauric acid has antimicrobial properties.

We need saturated fats to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A and D - found in animal fats, organ meats, fish, eggs and shellfish, other nutrients, such as vitamin K, associated with blood-clotting and building bones.

These vitamins are essential for healthy bones, for preventing birth defects and reproductive problems, for proper growth and development, and for preventing diseases such as colon cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Much research has shown that it is not saturated fats that cause heart attacks and high cholesterol levels, but clinical studies strongly suggest that trans-fats and refined and hydrolyzed (hydrogenated) fats found in vegetable oils, margarines, and oxidized polyunsaturated fats are the real "bad" fats, as explained in previous articles.

Protection Against Disease

Furthermore, research has shown that saturated fats are in fact associated with health improvements. For example, a study of more than 60,000 Swedish women, aged 46-70, found that polyunsaturated fats were associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer, while saturated fats were not [1].

As for heart disease, when male albino rats were fed a diet high in polyunsaturated fats such as soybean and rapeseed oils, they showed a high incidence of heart lesions. But, when dietary saturated fats (from cocoa butter) were added to the oils, the number of lesions was significantly reduced [2]. A three-year study of postmenopausal women with heart disease found that, contrary to popular belief, those who regularly consumed more saturated fats actually had less disease progression than those who followed a diet higher in polyunsaturated fats and carbohydrates [3].

A follow-up of the Swedish Malmo diet and cancer Study, which studied the fat intakes of 28,000 middle-aged people for five years, observed no ill effects of a high saturated-fats intake in either men or women [4].

Lipoprotein a, or Lp(a), found in the bloodstream, is a marker for cardiovascular disease. In one double-blind study comparing the effects of eating different types of fats - oleic acid (monounsaturated fats such as in olive oil), and different concentrations of trans fats and saturated fats - the diet that included saturated fats lowered Lp(a) by 8-11 per cent [5]

In fact, in India scientists attribute the increase in heart disease and type-2 diabetes to the replacement of traditional cooking fats, such as ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil, with polyunsaturated vegetable oils [6].

Summary

There is no scientific reason why natural foods containing saturated fat can't be part of a healthy diet; in fact the body requires fats for overall health, they are essential for a healthy heart and bones, for the absorption of minerals and protection of vital organs. The type of fat consumed holds the key to good health. Processed and refined fats, such as refined hydrogenated oils and trans fats, as well as poor nutritional and lifestyle choices and many other factors, all contribute to the health problems and diseases prevalent in society, as explained in other articles on the site.

References

  • [1] Wolk A, Bergström R, Hunter D, et al. A Prospective Study of Association of monounsaturated fat and Other Types of fat With Risk of breast cancer. Arch Intern Med, Jan 1998; 158: 41 - 45.

  • [2] Kramer JKG, Farnworth ER, Thompson BK, et al. Reduction of myocardial necrosis in male albino rats by manipulation of dietary fatty acid levels. Lipids, 1982; 17: 372-82

  • [3] Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB, Herrington DM. Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women. Am. J. Clinical nutrition, Nov 2004; 80: 1175 - 1184.

  • [4] Leosdottir M,Nilsson PM, Nilsson JA, et al.Dietary fat intake and early mortality patterns - data from The Malmö diet and cancer Study. Journal of Internal Medicine Volume 258, Issue 2, Date: August 2005, Pages: 153-165

  • [5] Clevidence BA, Judd JT, Schaefer EJ, et al. Plasma Lipoprotein (a) Levels in Men and Women Consuming Diets Enriched in Saturated, Cis-, or Trans-Monounsaturated fatty acids. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 1997;17:1657-1661

  • [6] Sircar S, Kansra U. Choice of cooking oils--myths and realities. J Indian Med Assoc 1998 Oct; 96(10):304-7.