Saturated fat is fat that consists of triglycerides containing only saturated fatty acids.
Foods that contain a high proportion of saturated fat are butter, lard, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, dairy products (especially cream and cheese), meat, chocolate, and some prepared foods.
Despite the studies that point to saturated fat as a dietary villan that increases heart disease risk, new research on saturated fats (especially those in coconut oil) shows nutritional promise for this maligned substance.
In fact, these traditional fats enjoyed by our ancestors play a number of essential biological roles. They make up half or more of our cell walls, they bolster our immune systems, nourish our heart muscle, carry important fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants, and (in the case of grass-fed butter and coconut oil) contain powerful anti-fungal, anti-microbial and anti-cancer properties.
Do Saturated Fats Cause Heart Disease?
But for decades we’ve been cautioned against eating saturated fat. We’ve been warned that a steak dinner is certain, over time, to lead to a heart attack or stroke.
The truth is heart disease started to climb in the 1920’s, a time when the consumption of animal fats (in terms of total calories consumed) began to decline.
In fact, heart disease was virtually unknown prior to the 1920s and caused probably no more than 10% of U.S. deaths. By the 1950s, death due to heart disease had risen to 30%. Today heart disease accounts for 35% of all deaths.
So if animal fat wasn’t increasing in the diet at a time when heart disease began to rise… what did increase in our diets? It was the consumption of omega 6 rich oils and refined carbohydrates.
But something else happened too. At the same time, farmers began moving their operations from the fields to the feedlot. Instead of consuming their natural diet of grass, cows were crowded into concentrated areas and fed a steady diet of grain (learn about the nutritional differences of grain-fed beef versus grass-fed beef here).
Corn replaced grass and the beneficial fatty acid profile in the meat changed. We effectively morphed our sources of saturated fat into polyunsaturated fat with the mass-production of meat and dairy. Formerly healthy beef and dairy products became yet another source of inflammatory omega-6 in the diet.
Native Fats for Natural Health
The native fats our ancestors enjoyed had a purpose. And this still rings true. Here are some of the reasons why getting saturated fat from clean, grass-fed and pastured animal sources is important to your health.
- Cell Structure: Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50% of the membranes of cells. They are what give our cells their structural integrity.
- Bone Health: They play a vital role in the health of our bones. Saturated fat is necessary for proper absorption of calcium.
- Heart Health: Saturated 18-carbon stearic acid and 16-carbon palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart. This is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated. The evaluation of fat in clogged arteries reveals that it is only about 26% saturated. The rest is unsaturated, of which more than half is polyunsaturated.
- Immune Health: Saturated fats—especially the short chain fatty acids from butter and coconut oil—enhance the immune system.
- Omega-3 Absorption: They are needed for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids. Long chain omega 3 fats are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.
- Digestive Health: Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids have important anti-microbial properties and protect us against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.
- Brain Development: Breast milk provides a higher proportion of cholesterol than almost any other food. It also contains over 50% of its calories as fat, much of which is saturated. Both cholesterol and saturated fat are essential for growth in babies and children, especially the development of the brain.