For more than half a century, saturated fat has been regarded as a deadly nutrient that clogs your arteries and causes heart disease. However, when you consider the fact that we’ve been eating saturated fat for millions of years, it just doesn’t make sense that it could be so unhealthy.
Modern science often neglects the importance of nature and this is one of the more prominent examples. Many reputable sources of information are now revealing that we’ve been misled and saturated fat does not cause heart disease. In fact, the “heart healthy” vegetable oils that we’ve been told to use instead of saturated fat pose a much more significant risk.
What is Saturated Fat?
All fatty acids are molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbon atoms have the capability of forming single, double, or triple bonds with other carbon atoms, and it is primarily this characteristic that distinguishes a fatty acid as saturated or unsaturated. Double and triple bonds are much more reactive and unstable than single bonds which can have significant implications for the fatty acid molecules that contain them.
Unsaturated fatty acids are characterized by having one or more double bonds while saturated fatty acids only have single bonds. This is why saturated fats are much more stable than unsaturated fats. Because of this difference in bonding, unsaturated fatty acid molecules tend to have a bent shape while saturated fatty acid molecules are straight. For this reason, fats that are more saturated tend to be more dense and are typically solid at room temperature.
Based on the number of carbon atoms in a saturated fatty acid, it is considered to be either short chain, medium chain, or long chain. As such, there is a variety of different saturated fatty acids and they each have a varying level of importance in the function of the human body.
Despite the bad reputation that saturated fat has undeservedly earned, it supports many of the body’s critical functions. The following are 12 reasons why saturated fat is an essential part of a healthy diet.
1. Physical Protection
Because saturated fat is dense and is able to remain solid at body temperature, it’s used to pad bony surfaces such as the palms, soles, and sitting bones and cushion vital organs such as the heart, kidneys, and intestines.
2. A Good Source of Energy
Fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates and protein making it an efficient source of energy. When consumed, fat can be used immediately for energy or stored for later use. Saturated fat accounts for nearly half of our body fat and can be produced by the body from excess carbohydrate consumption. This ability to produce and store body fat is what enabled our prehistoric ancestors to survive long winters and avoid starvation.
The heart, the liver, and resting muscles consume most of the energy used by the body and prefer fat as their source of fuel. In fact, the saturated fats stearic acid and palmitic acid are the preferred source of energy for the heart which is a major contradiction to the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease.
Unlike most other fats, short and medium chain fatty acids such as caproic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acid are easily absorbed through the intestines without the need to be broken down by bile acids. They’re transported directly to the liver, and as such, are an excellent and quick source of energy. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are both abundant sources of medium chain fatty acids, particularly lauric acid.
3. Safe Cooking
The high temperatures of cooking can easily damage fats and oils and make them a health concern. This is especially the case with unsaturated fats because of their shared bonds. Polyunsaturated fats are the most unstable, and when exposed to the high temperatures of cooking, they easily become oxidized and form free radicals that are highly damaging to cells. In fact, free radical damage from polyunsaturated fats is now believed to be a major contributor to atherosclerosis and heart disease. As such, the polyunsaturated vegetable oils that have been pushed as “heart healthy” alternatives, such as soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and canola oil, are anything but, especially for cooking. These oils are also commonly used in restaurants and in the manufacturing of processed foods.
Fats that contain a higher percentage of saturated fatty acids, such as butter, coconut oil, and palm oil, are excellent to cook with because they’re very stable and are also highly nutritious.
4. Healthy Brain and Nervous System Function
More than half of the human brain consists of fat and cholesterol, and between a third to more than half of the fat in the brain is saturated. Both saturated fat and cholesterol represent a significant portion of the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers and preserves proper function of the brain and nervous system. If this protective layer is compromised in any way, it can lead to a number of neurological disorders.
5. A Source of Fat Soluble Vitamins
Saturated animal fats are an excellent source of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, and K2 which are essential for good health and are deficient in most diets. These vitamins are important to immunity, gene expression, bone production, and many other critical functions.
6. Healthy Cell Function
According to Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist and the author of The Biology of Belief, the cell membrane regulates gene expression based on its surroundings and has a significant influence on our health and wellbeing. Saturated fat constitutes more than half of the cell membrane, and as such, contributes greatly to this influence. Because saturated fat increases the strength of cell membranes, it also provides cells with physical protection.
7. Strong Bones
According to research cited from Purdue University, saturated fat is essential to proper bone development and it’s incorporation of calcium. The fat soluble vitamins D and K2 that can be obtained from saturated animal fats are critical for healthy bone development as well.
8. Protection Against Toxins
Research has shown that saturated fatty acids help to reverse liver damage caused by alcohol and other toxic substances. Because saturated fats produce fewer free radicals, they’re also less likely to cause liver damage and impair it’s detoxification capabilities.
9. Stronger Immunity
Short and medium chain saturated fatty acids, particularly the lauric acid found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil, have natural antimicrobial properties that can provide protection against undesirable microorganisms in the intestines and promote a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria. This is important because the intestines account for more than two thirds of the immune system and have a tremendous influence on our health.
10. Good Lung Capacity
The alveoli of the lungs, which are where gas exchange occurs with blood, are lined with a material called surfactant. This material is what enables the alveoli to expand and facilitates the ease of breathing. As such, saturated fat is essential to healthy lung function, and it’s believed that when trans fats are consumed and used by alvoli cells to produce surfactant, lung function can become compromised and lead to the development of asthma.
11. Resilient Skin
Saturated fat makes skin cells more resistant to oxidative damage from the sun which can help to prevent sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancer.
12. Proper Utilization of Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are criticial to our health, and because they cannot be produced by the body, they must be obtained through diet. Among the many ways in which they support optimal health, they are important for proper immune, brain, and cardiovascular function. Saturated fats are believed to play a key role in the importance of essential fatty acids by promoting their proper utilization and protecting them from oxidation.
Know Your Fats
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, and to truly promote optimal health, it’s important that you understand their importance. To learn more, I highly recommend that you read Know Your Fats by Mary Enig PhD. This book is an excellent resource that dispels much of the popular misinformation about the health impact of various fats, particularly saturated fat. Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon is another excellent resource that also doubles as a great recipe book.
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