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Saturated Fats: Health Effects, Sources and Reducing Intake

Saturated fat is a type of fat in which all bonds in the fatty acid carbon chain are single bonds and, therefore, all carbons are saturated with hydrogen. This type of fat comes from animal products and certain vegetables and it is the chief dietary source of high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol). As a result, saturated fat happens to be a major cause of coronary heart disease. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and, as a rule of thumb, the harder and more stable a fat is, the more saturated it is.

All types of dietary fats and oils contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but in varying amounts. Saturated fat is made up of triglycerides (esters of glycerol and three fatty acids) in which most of the fatty acids are saturated. They are saturated because they contain the maximum possible number of hydrogen atoms per molecule so that there are no double bonds with free spaces that could potentially connect with other atoms.

While fat is essential for good health (e.g., carrying vitamins A, D, E and K into the bloodstream), too much of the wrong kinds of fat can cause health problems. Saturated fat, particularly, has a negative effect on health when consumed in large amounts. It is linked to high blood cholesterol, which is mostly created in the liver from various foods, especially saturated fat.

Consuming saturated fat causes the liver to produce more total cholesterol and more LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein), or so-called “bad” cholesterol, is associated with a greater risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. However, saturated fat has also been shown to raise the level of HDL cholesterol, the so-called “good” cholesterol. But, contrary to that, some studies suggest that saturated fat may reduce the ability of HDL cholesterol to keep inflammatory agents from affecting the inner lining of the arteries, thus promoting the formation of plaques that clog the arteries.

Sources of Saturated Fats

Although most foods contain both saturated and unsaturated fats, some foods have more saturated fat than others. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal-based foods such as lard, meat, butter or high-fat dairy products. Some vegetable oils are also high in saturated fats, including tropical oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils and cocoa butter. Furthermore, some products made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as margarine or shortening, have high levels of saturated fat as well as trans fat. Trans fats have similar impact on health as saturated fats. For more information on trans fatty acids, please refer to this post.

Other types of food that often contain high levels of saturated fat include various breads and cereals, crackers, cookies, snack foods, fast-food, processed foods, frozen dinners, fried foods, etc.

While for most people it makes sense to cut back on saturated fats, not all foods that contain them are necessarily bad. For example, meat and dairy products contain certain vital nutrients whereas many other foods that also contain saturated fats, like cereals, breads and even frozen and packaged foods, are healthy so long as they do not contain trans fats and are eaten in moderation.

Reducing Saturated Fat Intake

For most people, saturated fat should not make up more than 7-10% of their daily calories intake. However, people do not need to eliminate all saturated fats from their diet. Eating the occasional food high in saturated fat is perfectly acceptable.

Tips for lowering saturated fat content in the daily diet include eating lean meats; choosing low-fat or fat-free dairy products; baking, boiling or steaming vegetables; baking, broiling, roasting or simmering fish, poultry and meat; limiting consumption of fried foods and processed foods; substituting monounsaturated fats such as olive oil for butter, lard, margarines and salad dressings; substituting soft margarine or trans fatty acid-free margarine for butter; flavoring foods with spices and herbs instead of butter, margarine and sauces; and avoiding fast food.

Although low-fat diets are good for most people, they are not the best choice for children under the age of two. This is because cholesterol and fat are thought to play key roles in brain development. Therefore, parents should speak to the pediatrician about the best types of foods for infants and young children.