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saturated don't do you any favors, whereas polyunsaturated fats have been shown to decrease risk of heart disease and stroke

Are there any health benefits to consuming saturated fats? Or should they always be avoided in favor of polyunsaturated fats? Is there a health/nutritional downside to never consuming saturated fats?

I'm thinking fats from dairy, meat, bacon, eggs, etc.


So I've got two completely opposite answers. I'm really not savvy enough to tell the difference to pick the best answer... Help me out by posting more answers, commenting, upvoting/downvoting.

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closed as off topic by Ivo Flipse Feb 22 '12 at 15:53

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Care to add what kind of products have these fats? Because why eat them if you don't have to? –  Ivo Flipse Mar 29 '11 at 13:47
@Ivo, fats from dairy, meat, bacon, eggs. I just want to eat my bacon and feel like I'm helping my body in some way :) –  Doug T. Mar 29 '11 at 13:50
Coconut oil and palm oil are also high in saturated fat. Fatty acid profile varies with the breed of an animal, as well as its diet and the body part where the fat was stored. Pork fat, often denigrated, is lower in SFA than coconut oil or palm oil, and is about 45% monounsaturated. Why eat high fat foods? Besides providing slow-burning energy without affecting blood sugar, and aiding the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, food without fat is inferior in flavor and texture. Bonus: because they are unfashionable, fatty cuts of meat are great for a budget. –  J. Winchester Apr 2 '11 at 1:43

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Saturated fat is essential for the body to function properly, but that doesn't mean you need to eat it. It is well-established that for most people, the only two fatty acids that are essential in the diet are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are both polyunsaturated fats. Your body can make all other types of fats from these as it needs them (saturated fats, cholesterol, etc.). Because saturated fat can be made by your body, there is no additional benefit to getting it from a dietary source instead.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies supports the notion that there is no minimum requirement for saturated fat itself, however it also reports:

A UL [Tolerable Upper Intake Level] is not set for saturated fatty acids because any incremental increase in saturated fatty acid intake increases CHD [Coronary Heart Disease] risk. It is neither possible nor advisable to achieve 0 percent of energy from saturated fatty acids in typical whole-food diets. This is because all fat and oil sources are mixtures of fatty acids, and consuming 0 percent of energy would require extraordinary changes in patterns of dietary intake. Such extraordinary adjustments may introduce undesirable effects (e.g., inadequate intakes of protein and certain micronutrients) and unknown and unquantifiable health risks.

So you don't have to be a total freak about reducing saturated fat. The FDA suggests that no more than 10% of your daily Calories come from saturated fat (~20g in a 2000 Cal diet--a gram of fat yields 9 Cal) and the American Heart Foundation suggests no more than 7%.

Update: One possible benefit of saturated fat is that it is less likely to degrade. You do have to be careful about how you cook and store polyunsaturated oils, because oxidized polyunsaturated oil is associated with health risks (e.g. high-temperature frying can degrade canola oil). However, monounsaturated fats also make olive oil more stable, so when doing high-temperature frying it's hard to say whether you should follow the prevailing advice and go for an oil high in monounsaturated fatty acids (e.g. avocado oil), or if you should embrace recent research that indicates saturated fat is no worse than monounsaturated fat, and grab some butter.

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Just because your body can synthesize something doesn't mean eating it is not required or recommended. The amount of stuff that your body can produce if needed is really quite incredible and so it's not a good justification to eliminate all of these. Also, I would not recommend a focus on omega-6. There is enough evidence about problems with excess n-6 fats and people usually get more than enough of that through their regular diets as is (usually in excess). –  Alex Florescu Apr 4 '11 at 1:20
@anothem I agree, you have to make sure you balance your omegea-3's and 6's since they have opposite effects. And you're right, just because your body synthesizes something doesn't automatically mean it's not recommended. But in this case, most organizations don't recommend it (Wikipedia). I'm not really saying this to attack saturated fat. I want to express that if SF is generally recommended against, there's a good chance that we don't need it. –  Barbie Apr 4 '11 at 9:37
I'm going with this answer, it appears to be the best cited from a variety of sources. This is somewhat of a judgement call as I'm not expert enough to really know which solution works best. –  Doug T. Apr 7 '11 at 1:52
The problem with balance between omega3 & 6 is that a typical Western diet is over-heavy with omega-6. I read a stat that the typical American eats on the order of 20-30x the amount of omega-6, when the ratio should be about even. I'm guessing that many people on this site consciously watch that ratio, but I think it's also a safe bet that almost noone needs more omega-6! :-) –  Greg Apr 7 '11 at 3:44

Saturated fats are extremely important to eat. Here's a big long article about different kinds of fats and how they affect your body, with references to medical journals: http://www.coconutoil.com/truth_saturated_fats.htm

Short version:

  • Hydrogenated oils are the really bad stuff, natural saturated fats are good
  • 50% of cell membranes are made of saturated fatty acids, it's an essential component of the human body
  • Saturated fats aren't the ones that clog your arteries
  • Saturated fats are necessary for processing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K)
  • Eating minimally processed oils is the best thing to do, like coconut oil, palm oil, lard, extra virgin olive oil, etc
  • Homogenized milkfat isn't as good for you as whole (since it oxidizes easier)

So basically, your quote there is exactly backwards; eating saturated fats is essential, polyunsaturated fats isn't (and may be harmful).

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-1 No, this is misleading. According to current research, saturated fat is -nonessential- in the diet. The USDA doesn't even suggest a minimum requirement for it. I'm pretty sure it can be manufactured by the body. Saturated fats do not directly clog your arteries, but bad cholesterol is manufactured from excess saturated fat, and that -does- clog your arteries. Yes, some unsaturated fats can become oxidized if you store/cook them wrong, which is bad, but there is a wealth of evidence that even so polyunsaturated fats help prevent the top 3 causes of death in the USA. –  Barbie Mar 29 '11 at 17:39
@Barbie just to nitpick on one small piece of your comment, the USDA isn't really a credible source of nutritional advice. Their charter is essentially to drive agricultural revenue, which seems pragmatically to mean moving grain, producing quite a conflict of interest when it comes to dietary recommendations. –  Greg Mar 29 '11 at 18:57
+1 for mentioning cell membranes. These are key components in protecting the body from viruses and other cell invaders. This is entirely anecdotal of course, but I introduced a higher level of saturated fat into my diet about 18 months ago and I have had significantly fewer colds in that period than I normally would have, and of lesser severity. My blood cholesterol levels have not skyrocketed, and my doctor is quite happy. –  Greg Mar 29 '11 at 18:58
@Greg The USDA DRI table references this report done by a third-party organization. Since it's numbers based and not as subjective as something like the food pyramid, I consider their recommendations credible. Unless you are not eating enough energy, saturated fat's role in cell membranes is irrelevant because the body can make saturated fats from unsaturated fats, carbs, protein, and even alcohol. –  Barbie Mar 29 '11 at 22:15
It's pretty hard to believe that SFA, the form of energy storage most preferred by our own bodies, and provided for baby animals via milk and eggs, is somehow toxic. By the same token, polyunsaturated fats are in seeds because they are good for baby plants, not because they are good for seed predators. –  J. Winchester Apr 2 '11 at 2:16

I'm surprised to see that there is such a debate concerning types of fats. I don't think there are really different opinion camps on this. The following is not nuance. It is just the same information that you'd get if you asked any personal trainer or bodybuilder this question.

Saturated fats are from pigs, cows, and egg yolks. Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen atoms. They are a very stable molecules that do not react very readily in the body, and are more difficult to access for energy, so they are more likely to be stored for later use. These can be stored where ever your body stores fat and can also be stored along artery walls, and can cause heart disease. These types of fats should be limited.

Fats in red meat and pork products should be limited, but that does not mean it's necessary to eliminate all red meat and pork products rather limit the fat content by choosing lean cuts of these meats. Also remember that dairy products that are not fat free contain a considerable amount of saturated fats. Primarily cheese, even white cheeses contain a lot of saturated fat and should be minimized. Although some people eat cheese as a protein source, I do not believe it should be considered as such. The amount of calories from fat in cheese is well over half even in a low fat cheese.

Egg yolks have notable amounts of cholesterol in addition to saturated fat. Cholesterol has been credited with increasing levels of testosterone, so it may be worth taking in a moderate amount for this purpose.

Unsaturated fats are from fish and plant sources. They are called essential fatty acids because your body does not make them on its own, so you have to take them in through your diet. Unsaturated fats have fewer hydrogem molecules than saturated fats, so they will contain one or more double bonds which makes them a polarized molecule thus more reactive in the body. This means your body can break it down more readily to use it for energy. Polyunsaturated fats are unsaturated fats that have 2 or more double bonds. In addition, unsaturated fats can combine with saturated fats and pull away a hydrogen atom converting it to an unsaturated fat. In this manner unsaturated fats can help you both burn stored fat and break down fatty acids in the blood stream for a healthier cardiovascular system.

I suggest taking in unsaturated fats at least once or twice a day. The best sources are nuts and plant oils including peanuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, olive oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, flax oil, etc.

You'd be hard pressed to eliminate saturated fats completely from your diet because most unsaturated fats have some amount of saturated fats in addition and vise versa. You just have to read labels and consider how much you are getting of one compared to the other.

I should also include a note about trans fats which are a chemically created form of saturated fats. Trans fats should not just be limited but avoided completely. They have been proven to not only increase bad cholesterol, but to decrease good cholesterol. Trans fats can be found in icings, cooking lard like crisco, and many processed foods because they also act as a preservative.

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Hmm, it's difficult to classify a diet as "saturated fat". You don't sit down to eat a plate of sat. fat, you sit down and eat a steak. The most prevalent fatty acid in beef fat, btw, is oleic acid, which is same unsaturated fat that makes up the bulk of olive oil! Stearic acid (which is actually saturated) only comes in #2. –  Greg Apr 7 '11 at 3:47
Some references for this would be nice. –  Chris Pietschmann Jul 29 '11 at 21:30

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