What Is Saturated Fat?

If you keep a close eye on food ingredients, you know to look for saturated fat content. But what is saturated fat, and why do we hear different opinions about how much is too much?

what is saturated fat

What is saturated fat? It's the type of fat that solidifies at room temperature, and it occurs naturally in many foods, including those from animal sources.

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You see the phrase mentioned frequently in relation to nutrition, dieting, and overall health, but exactly what is saturated fat? And should we banish it from our eating plan?

Saturated fats fall under the very large umbrella of dietary “fats.” They’re typically solid at room temperature, and occur naturally in many foods. The majority of saturated fats comes from animal sources, including meat and dairy products (butter, cheese, cream, milk), but they’re also found in tropical oils, including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.

Saturated fats, from a chemistry view, are simply fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules within its fatty acid chain, because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. Put another way, the word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. The chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible because it’s saturated with hydrogens. An unsaturated fat, by contrast, has one double bond within its fatty acid chains (monounsaturated) or more than one double bond (polyunsaturated).

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COMMON SOURCES OF SATURATED FATS

  • Fatty beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Poultry with skin
  • Beef fat (tallow)
  • Lard and cream
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Other dairy products made from whole or 2-percent milk

Source: American Heart Association

What Is Saturated Fat? Clearing Up Confusion

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of confusion over saturated fats, with some headlines even praising them as “healthful.” But it’s important to look at the total body of scientific evidence over the past few decades instead of a single study. And research has consistently pointed out that saturated fats are linked with raising levels of cholesterol in the blood, which can increase risks of heart disease and stroke.

After a thorough review of the evidence, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—which includes a panel of the country’s most prestigious nutrition scientists and experts—recommended in the most recent 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines to limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories. For the average person eating 2,000 calories per day, that translates to less than 22 grams (g) of saturated fat per day.

The American Heart Association (AHA) took it a step further by recommending that people should aim for no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories from saturated fat, which is 11 to 13 g per day of saturated fat for the average person.

What Is Saturated Fat and How Do I Cut Down on It?

In order to reduce saturated fats in your diet, make sure your meal plan is sensible:

  • Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and nuts.
  • Limit red meat, choosing lean meats and poultry without skin.
  • Prepare food without additional sources of saturated fat, such as tropical oils, lard, or butter.
  • Watch out for baked goods, treats, and desserts made with high amounts of saturated fat. That includes crackers, cookies, pies, cakes, ice cream, and pastries.

Consider the AHA’s saturated fat recommendation as a daily budget; take the time to read labels to understand what you’re eating.

If you enjoy cheese, save your saturated fat limit for one ounce of flavorful, high-quality cheese. If you love the taste of cream in your coffee, let a drizzle of it stand as your saturated fat choice of the day. And be aware that too many splurges of saturated fat sources—steak for dinner, butter on your potatoes, and sour cream with your tacos—can easily push you to exceed your daily limit, thus raising your risk of increased blood cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease.

WHAT IS SATURATED FAT? THE USDA EXPLAINS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture explains the subject of fats in these simple terms:

  • Imagine a building made of solid bricks. This building of bricks is similar to the tightly packed bonds that make “saturated” fat. The bonds are often solid at room temperature like butter or the fat inside or around meat. Saturated fats are most often found in animal products such as beef, pork, and chicken. Leaner animal products, such as chicken breast or pork loin, often have less saturated fat. Foods that contain more saturated fat are usually solid at room temperature and are sometimes called “solid” fat.
  • Now, imagine the links in a chain that bend, move, and flow. The chain links are similar to the loose bonds that make “unsaturated” fat fluid or liquid at room temperature like the oil on top of a salad dressing or in a can of tuna. Unsaturated fat typically comes from plant sources such as olives, nuts, or seeds—but unsaturated fat is also present in fish. Unsaturated fat are usually called oils. Unlike saturated fat, these oils contain mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. A few food products such as coconut oil, palm oils, or whole milk remain as liquids at room temperature but are high in saturated fat.
  • Trans fat can be made from vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation. Trans fat is naturally found in small amounts in some animal products such as meat, whole milk, and milk products. Check the food label to find out whether trans fat is in your food choices. Trans fat can often be found in cakes, cookies, crackers, icings, margarines, and microwave popcorn.
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