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Saturated Fats Unpuzzled

Important Points:

  • Saturated fats
  • Unsaturated fats
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Cardiovascular risk
  • Fatty acids

Saturated Fats Unpuzzled

In the last decade, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding saturated fats. In case the news hasn’t caught up with you, scientists are rethinking the bad label attached to saturated fats. While this does not dispel the negative vibe attached to fatty meat and cheese, it seeks to clarify some broad generalizations that have been misleading.

For starters, saturated fats are not a single nutrient but a varied group of fatty acids that have different effects on the body. This means that while some saturated fats may be downright unhealthy for you, others are not and may even offer some health benefits.

This article examines some of the most common saturated fats, their health effects and what foods contain them.

What are Saturated Fats?

Fats can be divided into two broad categories: Saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. This is the most general way to differentiate the two groups. For a long time, it has been believed that saturated fats are unhealthy while unsaturated fats are healthy. This is why the advice has always been to opt for liquid oils such as canola, safflower or sunflower oil which are unsaturated oils and not coconut or palm oils which are saturated.

Examples of saturated fats include fatty meat, lard, tallow, cheese, cream, coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter. All fats are made up of fatty acids. There are a number of saturated fats which can be distinguished by the length of their carbon chains. Here is an example of how this looks like:

Saturated fatty acid Number of carbon atoms
Stearic acid 18
Palmitic acid 16
Myristic acid 14
Lauric acid: 12
Capric acid: 10
Caproic acid 10

Saturated fats can either be a short-chain, medium-chain or long-chain fatty acids. Those with less than six carbon atoms are referred to as short-chain while those with more are referred to as long-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are produced in the gut through the fermentation process. They may also be found in some fermented foods. Long-chain fatty acids are like the ones in the chart above which are found in dietary sources.

Do Saturated Fats Make Us Sick?

As mentioned above, saturated fats were slowly becoming taboo in health circles. As cardiovascular diseases took over a large chunk of the modern burden of disease, saturated fats were pushed to the sidelines as a strong risk factor. People switched to the heart-friendly mono- and polyunsaturated fats as they abandoned saturated fatty acids.

However, recent research has disputed the earlier beliefs that saturated fats are the main cause of cardiovascular diseases. This has not ruled out the fact that there is a link between the two, however, the exact role they play is still being debated. Also, it has emerged that not all saturated fats are created equal and hence some may be beneficial for your health.

Stearic acid

Stearic acid is a common saturated fatty acid with 18 carbon atoms. It is a major component of various animal and plant fats as well as cocoa butter. Research has shown that it may lower bad cholesterol levels or have no effect. The body converts some of the stearic acids into oleic acid which is a healthy unsaturated fat. This means that as compared to some saturated fats that are bad for the heart, stearic acid may be a safer option. It appears that stearic acid has neutral effects on the lipid profile. The main dietary sources of stearic acid are animal fat, coconut oil, cocoa butter, and palm kernel oil.

Palmitic acid

Palmitic acid is the most common saturated fat in plants and animals, and it makes up over 50% of the total amount of saturated fat consumed in the US. Palmitic acid is mostly found in palm oil and red meat. It raises bad cholesterol levels and has no effect on good cholesterol levels. This means that it may predispose one to the risk of cardiovascular disease. Palmitic acid has also been associated with low moods lack of motivation to engage in physical activities, and weight gain.  Consuming linoleic acid, an unsaturated fat, together with palmitic acid can help to offset some of the negative effects of palmitic acid.

Myristic acid

Myristic acid raises total cholesterol levels as well as bad cholesterols levels, and most likely means that it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Myristic acid is a rare fatty acid found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil.

Lauric acid

Lauric acid has 1 carbon atoms It increases good cholesterol levels as well as total cholesterol levels. This means that it reduces the amount of total cholesterol relative to HDL cholesterol. A study published in NCBI in 1996 concluded that “Lauric acid raises total cholesterol concentrations more than palmitic acid, which is partly due to a stronger rise in HDL cholesterol.” It may be beneficial for heart health.

Caproic, caprylic, and capric acid

The above fatty acids are abundant in goat milk; Capra actually means “female goat” in Latin. If you’ve heard of the benefits of goat milk, you may know it has to do with these fatty acids. These medium chain (having less than 12 carbon atoms) fatty acids are easily absorbed by the body and rapidly metabolized and aid in weight loss, increase insulin sensitivity as well as offer anti-seizure benefits. Consequently, these fatty acids are commonly sold as supplements which consist primarily of capric acid and caprylic acid.

Butyric Acid, Propionic Acid, and Acetic Acid

These three are short-chain fatty acids containing fewer than six carbon atoms, and are created through a fermentation process of fiber in the gut. They may be found in small amounts in dairy fat and some fermented foods. These are usually beneficial fatty acids.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

The jury is still out on this. Recent science is refuting earlier evidence that saturated fats are responsible for atherosclerosis. What is clear is that some types of saturated fats are either neutral or have some beneficial effects on the heart.

The key is likely the quality of the fat source, so we urge our patients to avoid vegetable oil and stick to natural fats found in real food.

References

1.   NCBI (2010): Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19939984

2.  NCBI (2010): Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19939984

3.  NCBI (1994): Impact of myristic acid versus palmitic acid on serum lipid and lipoprotein levels in healthy women and men. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8148355

4.  NCBI (1996): Comparison of the effects of diets enriched in lauric, palmitic, or oleic acids on serum lipids and lipoproteins in healthy women and men. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8644684

5.  NCBI (2016): Intestinal Short Chain Fatty Acids and their Link with Diet and Human Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26925050