Saturated fat, in excess, can increase the risk of a variety of health problems. Read this post for a summary of scientific research into this topic and to hear my own personal thoughts on the topic.
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First, I would like to start out by saying you should follow whatever diet you feel best from. I think people are built differently and benefit from different approaches. Many do great on consuming lots of saturated fat, while others don’t. Personally, it’s very bad for me.
Saturated Fat Leads To Inflammation and Insulin Resistance
Saturated fats like Palmitic acid (R), Myristic acid (R), Lauric acid (R) and Stearic acid (R) all cause insulin resistance. These are found in oils that some people view as beneficial such as coconut oil.
Palmitic acid has the most negative research behind it, but the others aren’t spared.
Excess Lauric acid, the main fat in coconut oil, increases inflammation. (R)
By decreasing mitochondrial function in muscle tissue, SFA consumption would lead to decreased oxidation of fat and glucose, thereby increasing their accumulation in tissues and blood (R).
In a study that tried to mimic the effects of low carb diets in rats concluded the following:
“Taken together, these data show that lack of dietary carbohydrates leads to glucose intolerance and insulin resistance in rats despite causing a reduction in fasting glucose and insulin concentrations. Our results argue against beneficial effects of LC-HFDs on glucose and insulin metabolism, at least under physiological conditions. Therefore, use of LC-HFDs for weight loss or other therapeutic purposes should be balanced against potentially harmful metabolic side effects” (R).
The Harms of Saturated Fats (In Excess)
I don’t believe consuming saturated fat in moderate amounts will hurt, but consuming excess amounts can potentially raise your risk for disease.
According to the World Health Organization, the evidence is “convincing” that consumption of palmitic acid increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, placing it in the same evidence category as trans fat. (R) The WHO has some of the best and brightest scientists working for them and they aren’t influenced by industry.
A misconception that some people have is that most of the studies use hydrogenated saturated fat and in some way, the fats from the oils they consume are magically different. This is a fallacy.
One can argue that the research even downplays the harms of saturated fat because most of the epidemiological studies done looking at the changes in saturated fat intake don’t also account for the negative health effects of an increase in refined carbohydrates when saturated fat is reduced. Refined carbs in excess can be worse than saturated fat in excess.
Excess saturated fat:
- Increases heart disease risk. A 2012 systematic review from The Cochrane Library analyzed 48 studies conducted between 1965 and 2009 and included 65,508 participants. All studies reduced or modified participants’ dietary fat or cholesterol for at least six months by at least 30 percent. It was found that reducing saturated fat by reducing and/or modifying dietary fat reduced the risk of having a cardiovascular event, such as heart attack, stroke, and unplanned heart surgery, by 14 percent (R). There’re conflicting studies on this but a Cochrane review is always the most reliable.
- Causes inflammation and insulin resistance (R). (Experienced this)
- Deteriorates physical performance and cognitive function in animals (R). (Experienced this)
- Causes hypothalamic inflammation. (R)
- Is associated with lower sperm quality. There was an association with reduced semen quality among 701 young Danish men from the general population. A significant dose-response association was found, and men in the highest quartile of saturated fat intake had a 38% (95% CI: 0.1%, 61%) lower sperm concentration and a 41% (95% CI: 4%, 64%) lower total sperm count than did men in the lowest quartile. No association between semen quality and intake of other types of fat was found. (R)
- Reduces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and therefore aggravates the outcome of traumatic brain injury on hippocampal plasticity and cognitive function by (R).
- Causes a leaky brain by damaging the brain barrier (R) (Experienced this)
- Impairs memory by impairing hippocampal energy metabolism (R) (Experienced this)
- Causes inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) in people with a genetic predisposition. (R)
- Induces weight gain. (R) (Experienced this)
- Causes gut permeability. (R) (Experienced this)
- A high saturated fat and low starch and fiber are associated with hyperinsulinemia in a non-diabetic population (R) (Experienced this)
- Increases risk of breast cancer. (R)
- Increases risk of ovarian cancer. (R)
- Increase risk of prostate cancer –myristic acid (R) and palmitic acid (R). Dairy products may be associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer as well (R).
- Decreases bone density in humans (R).
- Worsens mood. Substituting dietary monounsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with increased daily physical activity and resting energy expenditure and with changes in mood (R). (Experienced this)
- Blunts HPA function in pigs. (R)
- Worsens the gut microbiota composition and increases its intestinal permeability through the induction of TLR4. (R) (Experienced this)
- Increases LDL cholesterol …..Substituting polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat reduces LDL cholesterol and the total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol ratio (R).
- Increases aortic calcification by cause oxidative stress, leading to arterial stiffness(R).
- Causes a fatty liver (R).
- High-fat consumption causes atherosclerosis, independent of the fatty acid type consumed or of being lean or obese (R).
- Induces inflammation, atherosclerosis, and ectopic fat deposition, whereas an equally high dietary unsaturated fat load, does not induce these abnormalities and shows beneficial effects in diabetic pigs (R).
- May lead to depression, cognitive dysfunction, dementia, and neurodegenerative diseases by altering the Histamine 1 Receptor binding densities in various brain regions…..many of these changes can be prevented by adding DHA, GOS or RS to the diet (R).
What’s My Position?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that most of these studies are dealing with excess consumption of saturated fat.
I don’t advocate a low-fat diet since it’s not either optimal. I find no harm to myself when I eat under 30g of saturated fat a day (recommendations by mainstream health organizations is to get under 15g a day).
The fat I get from foods is from whole food sources or from healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil and Black Cumin Seed Oil (these also have palmitic acid in them). The only fat that I consume that is mostly saturated is Ghee, and I try to not consume more than a tablespoon a day.
But again, there’s scientific evidence and your own personal experiments. As always, listen to your own body and ignore all other evidence. If you feel better consuming copious amounts of coconut oil then do it and ignore this post.
While reading this article, it may seem like I believe saturated fats are “bad.” I think the story is more complex than that. It all depends on what you replace it with, genetics, and other factors like a number of calories you consume. When you consume fewer calories than you need, saturated fats won’t cause much insulin resistance.
Also, if you’re overweight, your muscle insulin receptors are probably already insensitive, so eating saturated fat probably won’t make much of a difference and could maybe even transiently be beneficial if it curbs appetite and helps you lose weight.
I did notice on the diet that it curbed my appetite, so I can see the appeal in that regard (a starch-based diet also curbs hunger and limits caloric intake).
Experiment for yourself and don’t listen to gurus. See what works for you.
I welcome dissenting opinions and studies that counter the points I make. Please post studies and not links to bloggers.
How Cholesterol Causes Heart Disease
Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, which is implicated in heart disease.
Health Tools I Wish I Had When I Was Sick
At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.
That’s why I decided to create tools that will help others cut down the guesswork:
- Lab Test Analyzer – a software tool that will analyze your labs and tell you what the optimal values are for each marker — as well as provide you with actionable tips and personalized health and lifestyle recommendations to help you get there.
- SelfDecode – a software tool that will help you analyze your genetic data from companies such as 23andme and ancestry. You will learn how your health is being impacted by your genes, and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.
- SelfHacked Secrets – an ebook where we examine and explain the biggest overlooked environmental factors that cause disease. This ebook is a great place to start your journey if you want to learn the essential steps to optimizing your health.
- SelfHacked Elimination Diet course – a video course that will help you figure out which diet works best for you
- Selfhacked Inflammation course – a video course on inflammation and how to bring it down
- Biohacking insomnia – an ebook on how to get great sleep
- Lectin Avoidance Cookbook – an e-cookbook for people with food sensitivities
- BrainGauge – a device that detects subtle brain changes and allows you to test what’s working for you
- SelfHacked VIP – an area where you can ask me (Joe) questions about health topics
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