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Misconceptions Behind Saturated Fats

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By Aaron Chacon, Evolve Medical Associate Nutrition and Fitness Coordinator 

In the general public, nutrition is often greatly misunderstood or misinterpreted. Media outlets perpetuate these misinterpretations, often quoting research out of context.  I’m not suggesting this is done with any bad intentions, but a vicious cycle begins where incorrect nutrition advice becomes the popular belief. One of the biggest misunderstood topics as a whole is dietary fat. Health concerns, dietary recommendations, which fats should be avoided, which fats are good – all of these topics get skewed in some way or another. Because the topic of dietary fat is so vast, this article will be focusing on saturated fats. You have probably heard about the harmful effects of saturated fats – its association with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, thoughts and ideas about nutrition change relatively quickly as new questions are asked and new studies emerge. So, saturated fats are now being viewed at viewed at very differently, and within moderation (that’s the key word), can provide a wide range of health benefits.

First, it’s important to understand what a saturated fat is. Here, the word saturated refers to the carbon skeleton of the fatty acid to be filled with hydrogen atoms. It is literally saturated with hydrogen. Palm oil, coconut oil, and butter generally have a high saturated fat content.  There are varying lengths of fatty acid chains as well –  from short (4-6 carbons) to very long chains (20-24 carbons). Your body metabolizes these varying chain lengths differently, and thus they have different effects on the body. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are notable for their health benefits. They serve as an efficient fuel source (meaning they don’t get stored as fat easily) and have antiviral properties, providing a boost to the immune system. MCTs are commonly found in butterfat and coconut oil.

Saturated fats can provide a whole host of benefits. Everyone has heard of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and it is without a doubt one of the best supplements to take. Well, saturated fats help retain omega-3’s better and help utilize them more effectively.  Moreover, saturated fats help improve your cholesterol profile and the type of fat found in coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter have liver-strengthening properties. As I touched upon earlier, certain saturated fats have immune-boosting properties. This is due to a type of MCT called lauric acid. Lauric acid has anti-microbial effects, and can reduce inflammation. It is even given to HIV-positive patients to help strengthen their immune systems. Lastly, one major misconception is that saturated fats are responsible for clogged arteries – it is still the scapegoat for this health concern, and legitimate sources such as Mayo Clinic still perpetuate this thought. New research has shown that the fat found in clogged arteries is actually only about 26% saturated. The remaining 74% is polyunsaturated and unsaturated fat. So, this claim is much exaggerated. John Meadows, CSCS, CISSN, competitive bodybuilder, and founder of the Mountain Dog Diet goes in depth about the positive effects saturated fats can have, I highly recommend checking out some of his stuff if you want to know more.

As I’ve mentioned throughout this article, coconut oil is an extremely versatile oil and a great source of saturated fat. It has a high MCT content, much of which is lauric acid. In general, the more saturated a fat is the better it is for cooking. This is because saturated fats remain stable up to high temperatures. So, coconut oil would be a good choice to use when cooking (~91% saturated) versus something like an extra virgin olive oil. Avoid any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and look for extra-virgin coconut oil, preferably organic if you can. 

While the acceptance of dietary fat has come a long way in the past decade, there are still some incorrect ideas floating around. While I hope this article has shed some light on the subject, I’m not recommending huge consumptions of coconut oil and butter. But when reading a nutrition label, don’t let that word saturated turn you away. As always, the key to being successful in any diet strategy is moderation.


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