Eating saturated fat does not increase your chance of getting heart disease. But, saturated fat can still increase cholesterol levels, which causes other health problems. You can enjoy saturated fat in moderation, but your body doesn't need saturated fat, meaning you don’t have to add it to your diet.
There’s a lot we don’t yet know for certain about saturated fats effects on your body. But there are two things we do know:
- When you feed people more saturated fat, it does not increase their chance of heart disease.
- Saturated fat does increase LDL (i.e. “bad”) cholesterol. This has been proven many times.
Those two facts are why so many people are confused about the role of saturated fat. On one hand, it appears to be healthy and on the other it’s dangerous.
The reality is that there’s no need to fear saturated fat, but there is a reason to limit your intake. To determine the right amount for you -- or if you even need saturated fat -- it’s best you understand the risks and rewards.
Do You Need Saturated Fat?
People love saturated fat because it shows up in many enjoyable foods, such as fatty steaks (think ribeyes), butter, and cheese. And while fat is no longer the enemy people once thought (dietary fat does not make you fat; too many calories make you fat), there’s a small detail that most people miss with saturated fat: Your body doesn’t actually need saturated fat.
Your body needs the two essential fatty acids, which are the fats your body can't produce on its own. These fats (alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid) are both found in unsaturated fats. So, technically, you don't need to eat saturated fats.
While some people thrive on diets high in saturated fat, your body might not. More importantly, for some people, small amounts of saturated fat lead to big changes in cholesterol levels.
So, in general, if you're not sure if you're a hyper-responder, look at your family history. If you have heart disease in your family, you’d be smart to keep your saturated fat intake at about 10 percent of your daily calories.
Saturated Fat and Your Health
If you’re still interested in adding more saturated fat to your diet, there is a relatively easy way to monitor how your body reacts to it.
Schedule two cholesterol tests spaced one month apart. Take the first test while eating your current diet. Then, make the dietary changes you wanted and take the second test.
Once you've taken both tests, you should be able to tell if your LDL has changed.
Elevated LDL doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a heart attack -- a possible explanation for the researchers’ null association between saturated and heart disease. It’s just one risk factor among many. But the general consensus is that if your goal is to live longer, keeping your LDL low should still be part of the plan.
Another test, which some experts say is more accurate examines your blood’s concentration of apolipoprotein B. This is a specific genetic marker looks at the particles that are the greatest threat to your arteries.
Saturated Fat and Your Diet
If bloodwork sounds too intense for you, then consider a more straightforward way to add more fat to your diet: Skip the butter and eat nuts, avocado, and olive oil (all proven healthy fats) instead.
Monounsaturated (the fat found in nuts, avocados, olive oil, and fish) tends to not impact your lipid levels and it's not correlated with heart disease.
Another saturated fat source that’s become popular in recent years is medium-chain triglycerides in the form of MCT oil, which is one of the saturated fat additives people have begun adding to their coffee in recent years. While they don't pass through your liver, they are also not a good replacement for unsaturated fats, nor are they a superior substitute for olive oil or nuts.
The bottom line is that saturated fat is a nutrient and something that your entire diet should not revolve around. Science suggests that you should neither go out of your way to eat more of it nor concern yourself with completely avoiding it.