A saturated fat is composed of saturated fatty acids where a linear arrangement of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached at each of the four points available on the carbon atoms. Saturated fats are mainly from animal sources and generally considered not to be healthy as they increase cholesterol levels, leading to heightened risk of heart disease.
Saturated fats were first brought to the public’s attention after Ancel Key’s released his research in the 1970’s that showed a correlation between the incidence of coronary heart disease and total cholesterol concentrations (Malhotra, 2013). After this study people were advised to reduce their saturated fat intake.
However, there has been a change in tide of this opinion in recent years with more research. One meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic demonstrated that there is no significant evidence of the association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk (Siri-Tarino, Sun, Hu and Krauss, 2010). This paper went further to suggest that more evidence is needed to understand whether CVD risks are influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.
Other researchers, like Malhotra (2013), have gone onto argue that it’s the source of saturated fat that determines whether it will have a negative effect on the body. This suggests that it could be other dietary components that lead to the increased risk of CVD and not purely saturated fats.
Similarly, Ballentine (2007) argued that saturated fats are more likely to be unhealthy when a diet is deficient in other nutrients. His conclusions are drawn from looking at the diet of people in India. The diet in north India contains 19 times more saturated fat than the south, yet their rate of heart disease is 7 times less. Studies like these in my opinion provide more insight and are more applicable in the real world. This is because they examine diet (as a whole and not just fats in isolation) across different ages and a long period of time.
Nowadays the NHS (2023) recommends less than 20g of saturated fats a day. To judge whether an item of food has too much saturated fat, you can look at its saturated fat content per 100g – 5g plus of saturated fats per 100g is considered high in saturated fats. The main source of saturated fats is from meats, cheeses and dairy products. Therefore, one strategy to cut down on saturated fats would be to move towards a more plant based diet.
In conclusion, I would say that there is a lot of conflicting evidence around whether there is a direct link between high saturated fat diet and CVD. However, people have been eating meat and dairy products, which are high in saturated for years, and it’s only in recent years that we have seen this significant increase in cholesterol levels, leading to increased risk of CDV. This to me suggests that it isn’t as simple as saturated fats in isolation. Instead one must consider the source of the saturated fats and what the overall diet looks like. A diet high in saturated fats from cakes and processed foods is going to have very different outcomes to someone who gets their saturated fats from meat and dairy products combined with lots of vegetables.
Ballentine, R., 2007. Diet & Nutrition: A Holistic Approach. 2nd ed. Honesdale: Himalayan Institute.
Malhotra, A., 2013. Saturated fat is not the major issue. British Medical Journal, 347.
Nhs.uk. (1) 2023 . How To Get More Fibre Into Your Diet. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-get-more-fibre-into-your-diet/> [Accessed 3 February 2023].
Siri-Tarino, P., Sun, Q., Hu, F. and Krauss, R., 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(3), pp.535-546.