What Is Saturated Fat?

Saturated fat is one of the two main categories of fats that appear in foods. It is distinguished from unsaturated fat in that there are no double bonds between carbon atoms in its chemical makeup, so that the fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen. Naturally occurring saturated fat, such as the fat found in animal-based foods, congeals when cool, while naturally occurring unsaturated fat, such as olive oil, remains fluid. Saturated fat is less likely to spoil than unsaturated fat and more stable during cooking.

The World Health Organization (WHO), along with the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), urges people to limit their intake of saturated fat, as many experts have linked it with cardiovascular disease. A diet high in saturated fats may lead to high cholesterol, which in turn may lead to atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Saturated fat intake raises one’s low density lipoprotein (LDL) levels — that’s the “bad” cholesterol. Unsaturated fat, on the other hand, raises the high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, resulting in a desirable cholesterol profile.

While fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet, most nutritionists agree that as many fat sources as possible should be unsaturated, unhydrogenated fat, such as that found in olive oil, fish, nuts, and avocado. Saturated fat is found mainly in animal products, including meats and dairy foods, but is also found in some plant sources. Coconut oil, cottonseed oil, and palm kernel oil all contain saturated fat, for example.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that saturated fat should make up no more than seven percent of one’s daily caloric intake. To manage cholesterol, consider replacing saturated fats wherever possible with unsaturated fats. Use olive oil when cooking instead of butter, for example, and choose fish more often than red meat. Unsaturated fat not only raises HDL levels, but also lowers LDL levels. While the older FDA guidelines recommended that unsaturated fats should not exceed 30% of one’s daily caloric intake, the new guidelines have eliminated this limit.

It should also be noted that when selecting an ideal source of healthy fats in one’s diet, it’s important to consider the source completely. All products with low saturated fat are not necessarily healthy. When choosing sources for healthy fats, it is important to prefer more natural and less-processed sources.

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