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Is Saturated Fat Healthy? The Science Backed Benefits of Saturated Fat

By Liam McAuliffe Updated on

Is Saturated Fat Healthy? The short answer is, yes, very healthy. 

Yet for more than half a century saturated fat has been the most demonized nutrient on earth. Everyone knows it clogs your arteries, right? Actually, that’s wrong. But after a lifetime of misinformation, we know this will take some convincing. 

In reality, saturated fat is a key nutrient in the healthiest and most nutrient-dense foods on earth like red meat, eggs, and full-fat dairy. And it plays an essential and supportive role in numerous critical bodily functions. 

Thankfully, modern science is setting the record straight.

In this article, we’ll explore the ways that saturated fat is healthy, and offer a thorough rundown of the science on saturated fat intake and health outcomes. 

Table of Contents

Fast Facts About Saturated Fats and Health

  • SFAs make up 1/2 of cell membrane structures in our body
  • Enhances calcium absorption
  • Aids in the body’s synthesis of the essential fatty acids
  • Provides a rich source of fat soluble vitamins  A, D, E, and K
  • Saturated fat in the diet doesn’t directly translate to saturated fats in the blood
  • Saturated fat levels in the blood are influenced by the prevalence of carbs in the diet and the subsequent carb-generated lipogenesis process
  • 60% of your brain is made of fat. 50% of the fat in your brain is saturated, and critical for cognitive function
  • Saturated fats are the building blocks of many key hormones
  • Cell membranes are 50% saturated fat
  • Saturated fats can increase HDL, the “good cholesterol”
  • Consuming a low-carb high-fat diet can increase LDL particle size–which reduces risk of heart disease
  • ​​Stearic Acid, One of the most common saturated fatty acids found in meat is associated with improved body fat, improved mitochondrial function, and weight loss
  • Stearic acid has been shown to slightly lower or have a neutral effect on LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Stearic acid shows no evidence of raising your risk of heart disease

What is Saturated Fat? 

Before jumping into the details of just how saturated fat is healthy, let’s briefly define what we’re talking about. 

Saturated fat is a specific class of fatty acid molecule consisting of carbon and hydrogen atoms. A fat is designated as saturated when it has the following characteristics:

  • All or most of the carbon-hydrogen bonds are single bonds
  • All available carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen atoms

These stable bonds protect SFA molecules from oxidation and rancidity. The stability of SFAs is why our body uses them to build durable cellular membranes. 

Why Saturated Fat is Healthy

54% of the fat in human breast milk is saturated fat. This is a strong indicator that it offers critical health benefits. Let’s look at the healthy roles saturated fat plays in the body. 

Saturated Fat is an Excellent Source of Energy

Saturated fat is an excellent source of energy and humans have adapted over millennia to thrive on it. 

We know this because when we eat excess carbs and calories we convert them to saturated fat stores on our bodies.

When our body metabolizes this stored fat through calorie restriction and exercise, we are essentially consuming saturated fat. The human body easily converts SFAs to ketones even when not in a starvation state (unlike most other animals), providing a superior energy source for the majority of cells in our bodies. 

As Carnivore diet thought leader Amber O’Hearn points out, our pre-humans and cavemen ancestors ate a steady diet of huge extremely fatty animals for nearly 2 million years of evolution. 

The bodies of modern humans are nearly identical to our caveman ancestors and are therefore adapted to consuming and mobilizing fat stores for energy. 

In the context of human dietary evolution, it was our scavenging of fatty bone meats and brains leftover from the kills of other predators that directly fueled our rapid brain development.

Our massive, fat-fueled brains are what separates us from our primate ancestors. Our ability to prioritize fat as a primary fuel source is essentially what makes us human. 

Vilifying saturated fat is a highly suspicious view of the human body and human evolution. It would make zero sense for our bodies to have developed a taste, storage system, and metabolism that efficiently uses saturated fat if it gave us heart attacks. 

Supports Cardiovascular Health

In fact, consuming saturated fat in the context of low-carb high-fat diets has been shown to support cardiovascular health.

Having lower Lp(a) is generally healthier bc it’s a carrier for oxidized phospholipids in our blood plasma. Oxidized lipids can embed themselves in your arterial walls creating atherosclerotic lesions

Consuming saturated fat reduces the levels of lipoprotein (a) in your bloodstream and increases “good” HDL cholesterol. The overall effect is the improvement of our heart disease risk factors.

Protects the Liver

Saturated fats have been shown to protect the liver from the effects of alcohol and drugs. In the context of a low-carb diet, SFAs have been shown to alleviate fatty liver disease.

Supports Healthy Lungs

A phospholipid fat made up of saturated palmitic acid keeps the surface of the lungs supple and protects them from irritants.

Supports Healthy Cell and Brain Function

Saturated fatty acids make up a large percentage of our cell membranes, and 80 

In some areas of the human brain saturated fats make up more than 80 percent of the phospholipids, and over half of the fatty acids in cell membranes are saturated fatty acids.

Myristic acid, a saturated fatty acid in milk products is essential for many cellular signaling pathways.

Supports Infant Development

Human milk fat is about 50% fat, and 54% of that is saturated fat. 

This fat fuels the rapidly growing infant brain and spares the protein for building a developing the body. Children who are put on low-fat diets develop growth and other health problems. 

Authors of a study published in Pediatric Pathology & Molecular Medicine stated, “evidence supports the view that intervening in childhood (2-15 years) with low-fat low-cholesterol diets or even worse, lipid-lowering drugs to prevent atherosclerotic plaques in adulthood is wasted effort. 

Overzealous parents may unwittingly induce malnutrition in their children and many children with restricted access to palatable foods, will yearn for them even more as they become older leading to overweightness.

Supports Intake of Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Saturated fats in various animal foods carry fat-soluble vitamins A and D into the body in forms that are more easily absorbed and utilized. 

In countries where intake of animal foods such as eggs and butter are low, vitamin A deficiencies are a problem.

The pioneering dentist and dietary researcher Weston A. Price found the traditional diets of  saturated fat and vitamins A, D, and K. who showed remarkable dental health and extremely low prevalence of modern diseases 

A Healthy Cooking Oil

Saturated bonds make SFAs molecularly stable and therefore resistant to oxidation and rancidity, even when exposed to high heat [3].

For example, ghee which is around 70% saturated fat has a smoke point of 485°F (250°C), which is substantially higher than even butter’s 350°F (175°C) smoke point.

Heating ghee has also been shown to produce far less of the toxic compound acrylamide when compared with vegetable and seed oils high in PUFAs.

One study revealed that soybean oil produced more than 1000% higher acrylamide than ghee when both were heated to just 320°F (160°C).

Where Did the Anti-Saturated Fat Movement Come From

The unfounded singling out and demonization of saturated fat is generally attributed to the influential nutritionist Ansel Keys and his Seven Countries Study in 1967. 

Keys’ study was motivated by an alarming increase in incidences of heart disease in American middle-aged men. 

Though the study actually examined the diets of 22 countries, Keys and his team cherrypicked the diets of 13,000 men in the U.S., Japan, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, and Finland. 

Among these countries, Keys correlated lower rates of heart disease with eating less animal fat, and more vegetables, grains, beans, fruit, and fish.

If the study was conducted accurately it would have been called the Twenty Two Countries Study and included the omitted data that challenged his hypothesis that fat intake was the main cause of heart disease. 

Targeting saturated fat was an easy answer to a more complex problem, and Keys was rewarded with the cover of Time Magazine. The media and health institutions ran with it, and are still trumping the anti-meat anti-fat fallacy to this day. 

chart showing countries included and omitted in ansel keys seven countries study

The red dots in the chart below represent populations that were not included in the original study: The Tokelau, Masai, and Inuit eat very high levels of saturated fat and have extremely low rates of heart disease. 

chart of ansel keys study including Tokelau, Masai, and Inuit

So what was the real cause of increased heart disease rates in America? It was likely the very thing that was touted as the replacement for animal fat: Margarine and other forms of “vegetable” oil. 

Over 100 years we can chart a strong correlation between the reduction in animal fat consumption and recommendations for a low-fat diet, with rising rates of obesity and heart disease. 

chart showing reduction in animal fat consumption

chart showing change in rate of death from various diseases in US

chart showing disease correlating with low fat guidelines

Ironically, a peer of Keys, the British scientist John Yudkin, was revealing connections between sugar intake and heart disease, but these were largely dismissed by scientific journals and health institutions.

The New Science on Saturated Fat

Modern studies looking at evidence from over 1 million participants and published in the most respected medical journals around the world are setting the saturated fat story straight. 

Research on Health Effects of Saturated Fat: Fast Facts

  • For the average person, saturated fat is not significantly associated with heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and death from heart attack
  • Intake of saturated fat in unprocessed red meat is not associated with CVD
  • Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, and dark chocolate are SFA-rich foods with a complex matrix (of nutrients) that are not associated with an increased risk of CVD. “The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods.”
  • Though total saturated fat intake is not related to incidences of heart disease, substituting animal protein for animal fat may increase your risk of heart disease

Studies Looking at Saturated Fat and Health Outcomes

Here’s a rundown of the modern and some buried older studies that tell the real story of dietary fat intake and CVD risk. 

is saturated fat healthy study title

In this randomized control trial looking at the efficacy of replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats researchers lowered cholesterol 14%.

However, this resulted in a “22% higher risk of death for each 30 mg/dL reduction in serum cholesterol.”


 

sydney heart health study title

This study known as the Sydney Heart Health study, was conducted to support the AustralianHeart Association’s hypothesis that replacing SFAs with PUFAs from seed oils would improve CVD risk factors.

Wow, did that backfire: The group that replaced saturated fat with vegetable oils did lower cholesterol, but had a 62% higher death rate!

abstract from sydney heart health study

title of BMJ article on who guidelines for reducing saturated fat

In this BMJ editorial review 19 BMJ researchers called for a retraction on WHO guidelines for reducing saturated fat.

key messages from BMJ heart health saturated fat review

 

title fat or fiction: the diet-heart hypothesis

In this 2019 study researchers concluded “The preponderance of evidence indicates that low-fat diets that reduce serum cholesterol do not reduce cardiovascular events or mortality” [5]

 

title from study of 42 European countries revealed a very strong NEGATIVE correlation between consuming animal products and heart disease

This study of 42 European countries revealed a very strong NEGATIVE correlation between animal products and heart disease.

And not surprisingly, it revealed a  positive correlation between carbs and increased risk of heart disease.

excerpt from study showing no correlation between eating fatty animal products and heart disease

title of PURE study looking at fat and heart disease

The PURE study looked at data from 140k subjects in 18 Countries. Researchers found  

  • Animal protein is associated with lower risk of mortality
  • Saturated fat is associated with lower risk of CVD
  • The highest fat consumption was associated with 20% lower risk of death
  • The highest carb intake was associated with a 28% increase in risk of death

Abstract from PURE studyabstract from meta analysis of randomized control trials by lead researcher Zoe Harcombe

This meta-analysis of randomized control trials by lead researcher Zoe Harcombe looked at data from 62,000 patients. It showed that interventions lowering dietary fat showed no significant difference in all-cause mortality or death from heart disease

[10]

abstract from Harcombe meta analysis of RCTs on fat and heart disease connection

Harcombe also examined World Health Organization Data from 192 countries and found a negative correlation between cholesterol level and risk of death in females.

chart showing inverse relationship between death and cholesterol levels

 

title of meta-analysis of observational studies of 347,000 subjects found “No significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD”

This meta-analysis of observational studies of 347,000 subjects found  

“No significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD”

abstract from meta analysis showing no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease

title from The RCT exploring the government recommendation for replacing saturated fat with PUFAs

The RCT exploring the government recommendation for replacing saturated fat with PUFAs found that “Available evidence from adequately controlled randomized controlled trials suggest replacing SFA with mostly n-6 PUFA is unlikely to reduce CHD events, CHD mortality or total mortality.”

title of meta-analysis of RCTs replacing saturated fat concluded

This meta-analysis of RCTs Replacing saturated fat concluded,

conclusion from meta analysis
title of study of thousands of chicago men by Stamler

This study of thousands of Chicago men by Stamler concluded:

conclusion of stamler study

title from The Women’s Health Initiative study

The Women’s Health Initiative is the largest RCT of low-fat diet ever conducted. It showed that a low-fat diet provided no benefits with regard to weight loss and cardiovascular disease.   

title from multiple risk factor intervention trial

In this classic study that took place over 9 years and collected data from 361,000 participants, the group that lowered saturated fat died at higher rates. 

At the 16-year follow-up, participants in this group had 20% higher rates of lung cancer even when they quit smoking

title of framingham study follow up study

In this 30-year follow-up to the bellwether Framingham study, it was shown that lowering cholesterol led to an increase of “11% overall and 14% CVD death rate increase per 1 mg/dL per year drop in cholesterol levels”. Men with cholesterol below 190 were 3x more likely to get colon cancer.

title of study of 10,000 israeli civil servants over 23 years

In this study of 10,000 israeli civil servants over 23 years, researchers found no significant association between reducing dietary saturated fat intake and risk of heart disease.

title of 24 week randomized control trial compared a high-fat keto group with a low-fat group

This 24 week randomized control trial compared a high-fat keto group with a low-fat group

It showed that the keto group lost 2X the weight and improved their triglyceride to HDL ratio, which is a strong risk factor for heart disease 9.

In this study, 84 people with obesity and type 2 diabetes were radomonly selected to either a low carb or low glycemic diet. The study revealed that:

  • 95% of people in the on the low-carb diet discontinued meds
  • Blood pressure improved
  • Lost and average of 24 lbs
  • Improved triglyceride/HDL ratio

Is Saturated Fat Healthy? The Bottomline

To answer the question, ‘is saturated fat healthy?’ we outlined the numerous important roles that saturated fat plays in the body.

We also examined numerous modern studies showing no causation nor correlation–and in many cases an inverse relationship–between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk. 

From these numerous data points it is clear that, yes, saturated fat is indeed healthy, especially when consumed as part of whole low-carb high-fat foods like meat, eggs, and dairy. 

 

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