Saturated Fats: A Food-Based Approach

In order to determine whether a food is healthy or not, a whole food approach in which each food is considered for all of its healthful components is superior to picking apart its individual nutrients.


Introduction

Recent evidence suggests that to reduce intake of total saturated fat without consideration of food sources is not based on evidence and may distract from more effective food-based recommendations. Given the specific food matrix, saturated fat can be included in a healthy diet. However, saturated fats can be found in highly processed foods, red/processed meat, and baked goods, so it is important to reduce saturated fat intake from these particular foods. Significant studies have also shown that consumption of unsaturated fat (specifically from plant sources), when compared to saturated fat, reduces the overall risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). In response, KIN’s nutrition curriculum recommends consuming more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats for the majority of our dietary fat intake. Given the recent evidence, our curriculum also does not promote saturated fats as necessarily “bad fats”; instead we recommend consuming saturated fat in whole food form and in moderation if other healthy fats are not available.


What are Fats?

Fat intake is necessary for growth and development. Fats are essential for our health because they provide us with energy, protects our organs, supports cell growth, maintains cholesterol and blood pressure, and is involved in nutrient absorption. Fats can also play a large role in heart disease. That’s why it is incredibly important to eat healthy fatty foods and avoid fatty processed and fried foods.


There are 3 types of fats:

  • Unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated): Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, cashews, etc.), seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, etc.), avocado, fish, soy, canola oil, and olive oil.

  • Saturated fats: chocolate, coconut, dairy, meats (bacon, steak, sausages, etc), and processed and fried foods.

  • Artificial trans fat is highly discouraged to be a part of any diet and banned in the USA.

Replacing Single-Nutrient Analysis with Whole Food-Based Approach

When determining the health benefit or risk of consuming saturated fat, it is important to look at the food as a whole and avoid a single-nutrient analysis approach. Different saturated fatty acids (SFA) have varied effects on the body depending on the composition of the food in which it is found. There is more than one type of LDL and reducing dietary saturated fat does not lower the type (small dense LDL) that is most strongly associated with heart-disease risk. Therefore, LDL concentration is no longer a valid biomarker in determining the risk of CVD caused by dietary changes. This LDL biomarker is what determines the fat recommendation for the Dietary Guideline for Americans (DGA) and because it is out-dated, there is mass public misconception of the impact of saturated fats on overall health. Moreover, the structural variations of saturated fatty acids lead to differences in absorption, transport, and even destination within the body. There is no significant evidence for the effects of saturated fat consumption on cardiovascular disease (or premature death). Examples of foods that contain relatively high levels of SFAs and are not associated with increased CVD risk are dark chocolate, eggs, whole-fat dairy, and unprocessed meat. In addition, research indicates that coconut oil, a plant food high in saturated fat, consumption does not increase CVD risk.


Saturated Fats in Processed and Fried Foods

Increased consumption of fried foods has shown to increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. According to a Harvard study, those who eat fried food at least once a week have a greater risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and this risk increases as the frequency of fried food consumption increases. Moreover, eating fried food away from home poses a greater detrimental impact on health compared to home-cooked fried foods. Restaurants and fast food services tend to reuse oil, which causes the oil to break down with each consecutive use. This degraded oil is more readily absorbed in the foods being fried, contributing to weight gain and high blood pressure (both of which are type 2 diabetes and CVD risk factors). Eating too much processed food that contains saturated fat, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates can also cause heart disease and obesity and should be limited to reduce risk of CVD.

In the United States, the major sources of dietary saturated fat come from:

  • Pizza and cheese

  • Whole and reduced-fat milk, butter, and dairy desserts

  • Processed meat products (sausage, bacon, beef, hamburgers)

  • Cookies and other grain-based desserts

  • A variety of mixed fast food dishes


Unsaturated Fats vs. Saturated Fats

Although studies suggest that saturated fats do not raise the risk of heart disease, there remains a stronger association between dietary mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids intake (specifically plant-based sources) and lower CVD risk in comparison to saturated fats. Other studies have suggested that substitution is key--cutting back on saturated fats can be healthy if replaced by healthy unsaturated fats. When unsaturated fats were substituted in place of carbohydrates, these good fats decreased levels of harmful LDL and increased protective HDL. KIN places emphasis on increasing plant-based foods for dietary fat intake, while still incorporating lean unprocessed animal-based foods for variety and dietary preference.


KIN’s Fat Spectrum

As taught in lesson 4: Fats & Cooking Methods

Plant-Based Whole Foods > Unprocessed Animal-Based Whole Food> Processed and Deep-Fried Food

  • Plant-based: avocado, coconut, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and their butters

  • Animal sourced (lean): fish, eggs, chicken, and turkey

  • Animal sourced (red meat): beef and pork

  • Processed and Deep Fried Foods: donuts, muffins, scones, cakes, biscuits, take-out pizza, hot dogs, ice cream, fast-food hamburgers, chicken nuggets, chicken wings, french fries, mozzarella sticks, potato chips, onion rings, fried chicken, bacon, etc.

Based on KIN’s Fat Spectrum, fatty plant-based food (primarily unsaturated with a few exceptions) are generally the best fat for increased heart health, while processed and deep-fried foods are actually harmful to your heart. Unprocessed meats can also be included in a healthy diet, but it is important to consume these in their natural one-ingredient state. This means avoiding pre-prepared take-out foods and learning to prepare it at home with healthy, simple ingredients.


Just like other food groups, variety is important for your body. When it comes to animal-based fats, it is healthier to choose lean meats (such as fish, chicken, and turkey) rather than red meats (beef and pork). In addition, fish is at the forefront of healthiest animal-based whole food with fat, as it is loaded with omega 3s, a polyunsaturated fat. Although lean meats can be included in a healthy diet, it is especially important to also consume plant-based foods as these are packed with heart healthy unsaturated fat. Variety is key.


The worst fatty foods on the spectrum are processed and deep-fried foods. These foods are generally packed with loads of saturated fat, sodium, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and preservatives. These foods harm your heart and can lead to things like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.


Tip: If you are eating any kind of processed food that has a long list of ingredients on the package, then it is most likely something harmful to your body, regardless if it has fat or not.

Takeaway

It is much more important to look at a food’s entire food matrix rather than its specific fatty acid content when determining the risk for cardiovascular disease. Recommendations to reduce saturated fat may cause a reduction in the intake of nutrient-dense foods that are important for preventing disease and improving health. It is now known that the impact of nutrients on health needs to be considered in the context of the overall diet as well as the type and degree of food processing that a food undergoes. That being said, studies have shown greater associations between improved health outcomes and plant-based fat consumption when compared to other types of fatty food. Lean, unprocessed animal-based foods can also be included in a healthy diet, but KIN recommends moderate consumption for reduction of detrimental environmental outcomes. KIN’s nutrition and food sustainability curricula promote a variety of plant and animal-based foods, with an emphasis on plant-based for optimal health and environmental sustainability.

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