As teenagers, we must consider our current and future health and the impact our current decisions and diet will have on it. How much of and the types of fats we eat daily, even in our youth, are vital to consider. We should all be aware of the controversy over consuming saturated fat. In this article, I will clarify what saturated fat is, review the latest discoveries in nutrition science, and explain why we should care, even as teenagers.
Doctors have said for years that saturated fat in people's diets is harmful. In the past, they have advised a low-fat diet as the most effective way to reduce heart disease risk. People took this to heart in the 80s and 90s and overhauled their diets.
While people avoided dietary fat of all kinds, there was also an increase in obesity and heart disease. Many people believe that the world moving toward more processed foods and less nutritious ones is to blame. Unfortunately, many companies increased the salt and sugar content to replace the fat in their foods, thus inadvertently contributing to the very problems that people were trying to avoid.
Different researchers now say that saturated fats may not be as dangerous as we once thought and can even be a part of a well-balanced diet. They also say to replace fats with unsaturated versions for better heart health.
Based on many years of conflicting information, you may be understandably confused.
What Foods Contain Saturated Fats?
Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products and tropical oils. There are also smaller amounts of it in other foods like vegetable oils, soy, nuts, and seeds. Saturated fat-rich foods include:
- All meats.
- Butter. One tablespoon (13.6 grams) of butter has seven grams of saturated fat and 0.5 grams of trans fat!
- Cheese. One ounce (28 grams) of mozzarella cheese contains three grams of saturated fat.
- Coconut and palm oil. One tablespoon (13.6 grams) of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat, and one tablespoon (13.6 grams) of palm oil has seven grams.
- Milk. One cup (240 ml) of whole milk has nine grams of saturated fat.
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products but can also be found in tropical oils.
What Are Different Types of Fats?
Along with carbohydrates and protein, fat is a macronutrient that plays a vital role in many aspects of our health.
Three main categories of fat exist: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. All are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Saturated fats are filled with hydrogen and contain all single bonds between molecules. Unsaturated fats are not saturated with hydrogen and have at least one double bond between molecules.
Due to the saturation of hydrogen molecules in saturated fats, like coconut oil, are solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats, like olive oil, are usually liquid at room temperature.
Depending on their carbon chain length, saturated fats will have varying effects on health.
Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have become saturated, either by humans or naturally in meat and dairy. Trans fats are dangerous because they lower HDL (good) cholesterol and increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk exponentially.
There are three main types of fat, each having different effects on your health. The three types are saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat. Unsaturated fats have a beneficial or neutral effect on heart disease and overall health. Saturated fats are neutral or negative, and trans fats cause numerous detrimental health effects.
How Do Saturated Fats Affect Health?
The American Heart Association advises that no more than 5 or 6 percent of our daily calories should come from saturated fat. This means that a teenage girl who is moderately active and consuming 2,100 calories per day (recommendation for her activity level) should eat no more than 126 calories (14 grams at six percent) from saturated fat. For a moderately active teenage boy, eating 2,600 calories each day (also the recommendation for his activity level) should not eat more than 156 calories (17 grams at six percent) from saturated fat. Many of us do not realize how much saturated fat the foods we eat daily have.
Many studies have shown that eating lots of saturated fat increases heart disease risk factors, including LDL (bad) cholesterol and ApoB. LDL transports cholesterol in the body. ApoB is a protein and a building block in LDL particles. An increased blood count of LDL particles is associated with a heightened risk for heart disease progression. However, this recommendation does not have clear-cut answers and guidance. Although saturated fat may increase certain heart disease risk factors, no conclusive evidence shows that saturated fat alone is to blame.
Saturated fat intake is associated with worsening of these risk factors and the LDL to HDL ratio, another heart disease risk factor. HDL is cardio-protective. A low level of this beneficial molecule is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Despite this, research suggests that polyunsaturated fats may decrease the heart-protective effects of HDL.
However, this research is not definitive. Several studies have found no significant association between saturated fat consumption and cardiovascular disease deaths. In contrast, high-carbohydrate diets are associated with an increased risk of death.
The effects of saturated fat on heart disease are by far the most researched. Increased intake is also associated with other detrimental health effects, including increased inflammation, cancers, and mental decline.
Research has found that a diet high in saturated fat increases pro-inflammatory proteins. Some evidence also indicates that saturated fats may mimic the actions of bacterial toxins and promote inflammation.
Some studies reveal that saturated fat may worsen cognitive function, appetite, and metabolism. Yet, human research in these areas is inconsistent, with some research showing fat as a filling nutrient. There is also concern that processed foods may cause diminished mental performance, not necessarily because of the saturated fats they usually contain. Many experts argue that one macronutrient cannot cause diseases and that a person's whole diet is what truly matters.
Are Saturated Fats Unhealthy?
Research indicates that consuming certain foods high in saturated fat likely negatively affects health. It is necessary to know that not all saturated fats are created equal.
For example, diets high in saturated fats from processed meats, fast food, fried products, and sugary baked goods are likely to affect health negatively.
Whether saturated fat increases disease risk likely depends on what foods are replacing it — or what it is replacing — and overall diet quality.
An optimal diet is rich in whole grains and plant-based foods while minimizing processed ones.
Focusing only on individual macronutrients instead of your whole diet does not consider the possible detrimental effects of other dietary components, like added sugars or cholesterol. Lifestyle and genetic variations are also relevant. Both affect overall health, dietary needs, and disease risk. Research supports the American Heart Association's advice not to focus on one food but instead to focus on your overall diet.
A teenage girl who is moderately active and consuming 2,100 calories per day (recommendation for her activity level) should eat no more than 126 calories (14 grams at six percent) from saturated fat. For a moderately active teenage boy, eating 2,600 calories each day (also the recommendation for his activity level) should not eat more than 156 calories (17 grams at six percent) from saturated fat.
Individual nutrients are not to blame for diseases. Humans do not consume just fat, protein, or carbohydrates. Macro and micronutrients are obtained together by consuming a variety of different foods.
We cannot attribute disease progression to individual macronutrients. It is your diet as a whole that truly matters. It is advisable to focus on eating a generally nutrient-rich and balanced diet instead of focusing on the exclusion of certain foods.
Why is There Controversy Over Saturated Fats?
Researchers often refer to saturated fats as destructive and even group them with trans fats. Evidence on the health impacts of saturated fat intake is not definitive.
Health institutions have recommended for decades that saturated fats be limited. They also advise replacing saturated fats with nutrient-dense foods to help decrease heart disease risk and promote overall health.
Despite this advice, rates of heart disease, obesity, and related diseases, like type 2 diabetes, have increased steadily. Many experts believe this is because of the increased consumption of processed foods high in simple carbs and not saturated fat. Although, it is a good idea to add more nutrient-dense, plant-based foods to your diet.
Studies contradict the recommendation to avoid saturated fat and instead consume polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are prevalent in vegetable oils, like soybean and sunflower oil. However, such guidance has inevitably led to confusion.
Saturated fats are prevalent in animal products and tropical oils. Recent studies show that processed and sugary foods may pose considerably more risk than saturated fat. Although its intake may increase heart disease risk factors, research has not made significant links between saturated fat and heart disease. Some studies do indicate that it may negatively affect other health aspects.
Do Saturated Fats Have A Place In A Healthy Diet?
Research reviews reveal that coconut oil intake may raise HDL (good) cholesterol and benefit weight loss. However, more extensive human trials are needed to verify the claimed benefits of coconut oil.
On the other hand, consuming processed foods rich in saturated fats, including fast and fried foods, has been consistently linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and numerous other health conditions.
Replacing a high-saturated fat diet with a high-carb diet has increased heart disease risk. At the same time, researchers note that the long-term health effects of following a low-carb, high-fat diet are currently unknown.
Extensive research has also shown that regardless of macronutrient composition, eating patterns rich in unprocessed, plant-based foods improve many conditions, like heart disease and obesity.
What is most important is balance and optimization, not limiting, regardless of your dietary preferences.
An optimal diet should be rich – not limiting – in many plant-based, nutritious foods, regardless of macronutrient composition.
Saturated fats have been considered unhealthy for decades. Yet, current research supports that nutritious high-fat foods can be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Although nutrition research usually focuses on individual macronutrients, it is far more helpful to focus on your whole diet for overall health and disease prevention. Instead of focusing on a low-fat or high-fat diet, it is crucial to ensure you get enough of all the essential macro and micronutrients daily. We need more well-designed studies to fully understand the complex relationship between individual macronutrients and overall health, including saturated fat. However, following a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods is optimal for your health. How we eat today will affect our future health. We should be kind to our future selves by starting these healthy habits early in life. If you are concerned about getting the right balance of macronutrients for your health, you should speak with a doctor or dietitian.