Are Saturated Fats Bad For Our Health?

Saturated fats cause health problems when consumed in excess. It's best to limit their consumption to a small percentage of your total diet so that they don't cause undesirable effects on your health.
Are Saturated Fats Bad For Our Health?

Last update: 25 April, 2021

Saturated fats are one of the types of dietary fats that exist and that could eventually cause health problems. They’re mainly present in foods of animal origin such as meats, egg yolk, sausages, and milk and its derivatives.

Saturated fats become solid at room temperature and are sometimes visible to the naked eye in foods, as is the case of those in chicken skin, around red meat, or in milk. Other times they’re not visible, since they are used during food processing.

This type of fat is also present in some foods of vegetable origin, such as palm or coconut oil. Experts have established that high consumption of saturated fats could lead to health problems and, in particular, cardiovascular diseases.

However, this assertion has been called into question in recent years. There’s considerable debate on the subject in the scientific literature, as this article in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition states.

Fats and types of fats

Fat is a nutrient that provides energy to the body so that it can function normally. If we exercise, during the first 20 minutes, the body works thanks to the calories that carbohydrates provide. From then on, it takes energy from fats.

Fats also play an important role in maintaining the health of our hair and skin, as well as balancing body temperature and for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. That’s why such vitamins are called fat-soluble.

There are basically three types of fats: Unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. Let’s see:

  • Unsaturated fats: These are liquid in the environment and are present mainly in foods of vegetable origin and fish. Their consumption helps to improve cholesterol levels.
  • Saturated fats: We know them also as solid fats and their high consumption increases the level of bad cholesterol, which clogs the arteries.
  • Trans fats: These are fats processed by a method called hydrogenation. They’re the most harmful and are mainly found in industrial foods, according to a study published in the BMJ.
Raw chicken on a cutting board with olive oil, spices, and herbs.
Saturated fats are evident to the naked eye in chicken skin.

Continue reading: Which Are Better: Full-Fat or Low-Fat Dairy Products?

The effects of saturated fats

When we consume saturated fats in excess, they may cause problems in the body. The most relevant being that they cause a buildup of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the arteries. When this happens, the risk of developing heart disease, arteriosclerosis, or stroke may increase significantly. Although this is currently in doubt.

Excess cholesterol causes a lesion to develop on the walls of the arteries, called an atheroma plaque. The consequence of this is that it reduces the diameter of the arteries, which hinders the passage of blood. This is what could lead to cardiovascular problems.

Another undesirable effect of this type of fat is that it easily leads to weight gain. And if we ingest a high volume of them, especially if this is accompanied by little physical activity, the result is excess weight and obesity. Both notoriously affect health.

Myths and misconceptions about saturated fats

The subject of fats and diets has lent itself to the popularization of some myths and misconceptions. The first of these is that it’s bad to consume saturated fats in all cases. This isn’t true. Experts recommended that saturated fats not represent more than 6% of daily food consumption.

Likewise, saturated fats are often eliminated from the diet without considering how they can be replaced for proper nutrition. The right thing to do in these cases is to replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats, and not to completely eliminate all types of fats.

Another healthy option is to increase the intake of whole-grain carbohydrates, such as brown rice. On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to replace bad fats with carbohydrates such as white flour or sugar. A study on the subject pointed out that those who do this not only don’t reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Rather, it will increase the risk.

An illustration of a clotted artery.
Saturated fats raise bad cholesterol, which leads to clogged arteries.

Find out more: Control Bad Cholesterol Levels with a Healthy Diet

Fats and a healthy diet

The key to a healthy diet is balance. The golden formula remains a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and unsaturated fats. In smaller amounts and a regulated manner, carbohydrates, and saturated fats.

It’s estimated that 25-30% of daily calories should come from fats. In turn, only 6-7 % of these fats should be saturated fats. This is equivalent to approximately 15-25 grams of saturated fats per day.

In general, we should consume low amounts of foods such as industrial pastries, fatty or processed meats, full-fat dairy products, packaged foods, or fried foods. Of course, we can indulge from time to time, but make it the exception and not the rule.

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  • Szajewska H., Szajewski T., Saturated fat controversy: importance of systematic reviews and meta analysis. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2016. 56 (12): 1947-51.
  • Souza RJ., Mente A., Maroleanu A., Cozma AI., et al., Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta analysis of observational studies. BMJ, 2015.