Saturated fat has taken a beating from the popular media and from health and nutrition professionals, but what’s the other side of the coin that most of those people don’t tell you about?
A fatty acid is a molecule that is made up of a chain of carbon atoms. These chains can vary in length from 1 to 24 carbons. Fatty acids are given their names based on how long the chain is, and at what position the “unsaturation” occurs. If the fatty acid is saturated, then the carbon chain length determines the name.
What is a saturated fat? Each carbon atom in the fatty acid chain has room for two hydrogen molecules, except at the end where it has room for three. A fatty acid possessing two hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom in the chain is said to be “saturated.” A fatty acid missing two or more hydrogen atoms along the chain, which causes double bonds between carbon atoms, is said to be “unsaturated.” If there is one double bond, the fatty acid is referred to as “monounsaturated.” If there are two or more double bonds found along the chain, the fatty acid is referred to as “polyunsaturated.” Sources of saturated fat include beef tallow (fat), dairy products, and palm and coconut oils.
With all of that in mind, let's take a closer look at the roles of saturated fats in the body as we detail 10 reasons to eat more saturated fat.
1. They lower Lp(a), a substance in the blood that is said to indicate proneness to heart disease.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) transports cholesterol from the liver to the tissues of the body, and is considered in the mainstream to be the “bad” cholesterol. Lipoprotein(a), also called LP(a), is a subclass of lipoprotein. It’s a low-density lipoprotein (LDL), coupled to a lipoprotein(a), the protein portion of a molecule or complex consisting of a protein molecule joined to a non-protein molecule or molecules (such as a lipoprotein). LP(a) has been reported to be more atherogenic than LDL, and may be an independent risk factor for heart disease. (An atherogenic substance is considered to initiate or accelerate atherogenesis, the depositing of atheromas, lipids and calcium in the arteries.) Though largely thought to be determined by genetic factors, several reports show that LP(a) levels have been significantly altered by the type of fat consumed.
A double blind study reported in the American Heart Association’s journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, measured LP(a) levels in 29 men and 29 women who ate four controlled diets in random order for four weeks each. Each diet contained 39 percent to 40 percent of energy as fatty acids. The diets were: oleic acid (monosaturated); moderate trans fat; high trans fat; and the saturated diet(lauric, myristic and palmitic acid).
The study reports there were no statistical differences among LP(a) levels produced by consumption of the oleic, mod trans fat or high trans fat diets. However, the saturated diet produced levels that were 8 percent to 11 percent lower than levels produced by the other three diets. ("Plasma lipoprotein (a)," 1997)
2. They protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins like Tylenol (acetaminophen).
Saturated fats also have been shown to reverse alcoholic liver injury. (Cha, Y S, and D S Sachan, J Am Coll Nutr, Aug 1994, 13(4):338-43; Nanji, A A, et al, Gastroenterology, Aug 1995, 109(2):547-54)
3. They ideally constitute at least 50 percent of our cell membranes, which gives our cells integrity.
When we consume too little saturated fat, or too much polyunsaturated fat, the cell walls become “floppy” and cannot function properly. (Enig, & Fallon, 2005)
4. They play a vital role in the health of our bones.
Mother Nature placed saturated fat and calcium in the same food – milk -- for a reason. In order for calcium to be effectively absorbed, saturated fat needs to be a major part of a healthy diet. (Enig, & Fallon, 2000a; McDonald, & Min, 1996)
5. They enhance the immune system.
(Enig, & Fallon, 2000a)
6. They are needed for proper utilization of essential fatty acids, like omega-3.
7. Stearic acid and palmitic acid, both saturated fats, are the preferred energy source of the heart.
This is why the fat around the heart muscle is mainly saturated. The best sources for palmitic acid are beef, butter and palm oil.
8. They help protect us from harmful microorganisms.
Coconut oil is the most saturated of all fats. Saturated fat has three subcategories: short chain, medium chain and long chain. Coconut oil contains about 65 percent medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). Although recognized for its health benefits many centuries ago, it wasn’t until 40 years ago that modern medicine found the source to be MCFA. Remarkably, mother’s milk contains the same healing powers of coconut oil (Kabara).
Lauric acid, a saturated medium chain lipid, comprises more than 50 percent of coconut oil. It is the anti-bacterial, anti-viral fatty acid found in mother’s milk (Enig, 2000). The body converts lauric acid into the fatty acid derivative monolaurin, which is the substance that protects adults as well as infants from viral, bacterial or protozoal infections. This was recognized and reported as early as 1966 (Lee, 2001).
Since the first half of the 19th century, infection has been implicated as a cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) (Epstein, Zhu, Buenett, & Zhou, 2000). Researchers have been studying what causes the changes in the arterial wall. Professors Russell Ross and John Glomset formulated a hypothesis in 1973 about what causes CVD. They hypothesized that CVD occurs in response to localized injury to the lining of the artery wall, which has been brought about by a number of things including viruses (Furci, 2006). The injury, in turn, causes inflammation and infection. The plaque that develops is a result of the body trying to heal itself. It has been very well established that pathogens play an integral role in cardiovascular disease (Getting to the heart of artherosclerosis, 1996).
What is interesting about the role of viruses that have been found to initiate cardiovascular disease is that they can be inhibited by the medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil. You could say that consuming coconut oil decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
9. They will help you lose body fat.
That’s right -- eating the right fat will cause you to lose fat.
Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum, you’re aware that the U.S. has what’s called a weight problem. As a matter of fact, if you were born in this country, your chance of being overweight is greater than 60 percent. Another one of the great benefits of coconut oil, specifically the medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) it contains, is its ability to increase energy expenditure. In other words, it increases your metabolism.
Unlike long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), MCFAs are processed very easily by the body. When they are consumed, MCFAs are absorbed directly into the blood stream from the small intestines and go right to the liver. Once in the liver, they are easily burned as fuel. Because of their size and the ease in which they are processed, MCFAs are not readily stored as fat. On the contrary, because of their size, LCFAs are not as efficiently processed, and the body prefers to store them in fat cells.
MCFA’s metabolism-boosting effects have been known for decades and are heavily documented through research.
In a study, researchers compared the thermogenic effect between MCFAs and LCFAs after single meals. The meals were 400 calories consisted entirely of either MCFAs or LCFAs. The thermogenic effect of MCFAs over six hours was three times greater than that of LCFAs. Researchers concluded that as long as the calorie level remained constant, substituting MCFAs for LCFAs would result in weight loss (Seaton, 1986).
Farmers found that when they gave their livestock feed that contained polyunsaturated oils like soy and corn oil, the animals readily gained weight. However, when they used feed that incorporated coconut oil, the animals got leaner. The main reason for this is that polyunsaturated fats suppress thyroid function, which decreases the animal’s metabolic rate. Soy oils are the worst offenders because of the goitrogens (anti-thyroid substances) they contain (Daniel, 2005). This is what happens to humans when we consume polyunsaturated oils. Is it any wonder the obesity epidemic is so bad when our consumption of vegetable fats has increased by more than 400 percent (Enig, & Fallon, 2000b)?
Researchers at Vanderbilt University compared the thermogenic effect of liquid diets containing 40 percent of fat as either MCFAs or LCFAs. All subjects were studied for one week on each diet in a double blind, cross-over design. Resting metabolic rate did not change during the week. The thermogenic response to MCFAs was roughly twice that of the LCFAs (Hill, 1989).
A study was published last year conducted by researchers at McGill University to evaluate existing data describing the effects of MCFAs on energy expenditure, and to determine their efficacy as agents in the treatment of obesity. They reported that several different studies have shown weight loss equivalent to 12 to 36 pounds a year, simply by changing the types of oils used in everyday cooking and food preparation. Animal and human studies have shown greater energy expenditure, less body weight gain, and decreased size of fatty deposits when using MCFAs as opposed to LCFAs (St-Onge, & Jones, 2002).
10. They are the best fats to cook with, including repeat frying.
This is because saturated fats are very stable and do not become rancid from heat exposure. Polyunsaturated fats like corn, sunflower, safflower, or soy oil, however, are a poor choice to use for cooking. Heating polyunsaturated fats produces large amounts of free radicals (Furci, 2006).
Free radicals, or “chemical marauders” as some scientists refer to them, wreak havoc on our bodies. These chemical marauders damage whatever tissue is in their vicinity and are implicated in diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer (Furci, 2006).
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