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What is Saturated Fat? (Sources, Benefits & Function)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: August 15, 2022

Saturated fat is a form of solid fat primarily found in animal-based foods, such as red meat and dairy products, but also in certain plant-based sources, such as coconut oil.

For a long time, a general rule of thumb has been that foods containing saturated fats are high in calories and tend to be unhealthy.

So, we teamed up with nutritionists and dietitians to dig deeper, and after thorough research and detailed conversations, we bring you what we’ve found.

Let’s get started.

Quick Summary

  • Having too much saturated fat in your diet can raise cholesterol levels in your blood and possibly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Some recent research suggests the jury is still out on saturated fat and that it might actually be beneficial.
  • Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones is a good approach to reducing the overall intake.

What Is Saturated Fat?

Top view of raw meats with tomatoes

Saturated fat is a type of dietary fat in which all lipid molecules have single chemical bonds, unlike unsaturated fat, where they have one or more double bonds. What does this mean?

This is going to get a bit technical, but bear with me; it’s actually not that complex.

Fats are primarily made of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Carbon atoms can bond with four other atoms to make a molecule, so to make fat molecules, they bond to one another in what’s called a fatty-acid chain, and all remaining bonds are “saturated” by hydrogen atoms [1].

That’s why they are called “saturated” fats, and that is why they are stable and solid at room temperatures because, essentially, they are tightly bound together.

What Foods Contain Saturated Fat?

Foods that contain saturated fat are mostly animal-based, but there are some plant oils as well.

Below are examples of foods that are high in saturated fat [2]:

  • Red meat and processed meats
  • Milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream
  • Butter and other spreads
  • Coconut oil and palm oil
  • Baked goods made with saturated fat (pies, pastries, cookies, and cakes)

Impact of Saturated Fat on Health

An obese person measuring his stomach

Although the wind is slowly changing when it comes to the purported health risks of saturated fat, there are a number of health concerns that have traditionally been linked to this fat type.

Heart disease and stroke: Saturated fat can raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease [3].

However, several studies have shown that consuming high-saturated-fat diets does not increase the risk of heart disease and that it may even reduce it [4].

Obesity: Since saturated fat is calorie-dense, it can lead to weight gain and obesity. Common advice is to substitute saturated fat with unsaturated fat because many studies have demonstrated that it is the healthiest form of fat [5].

But as we’ve said, there is no clear-cut answer, and much more thorough research is needed.

"The USDA recommends avoiding saturated fats because they say there is evidence that eating less saturated fats "is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease," especially higher blood cholesterol levels. The truth about saturated fat consumption is that it's never been shown to cause cardiovascular disease (CVD)"- Diane Sanfilippo, Nutrition Consultant.

How to Cut Down Saturated Fat?

Using a magnifying glass on a nutrition facts

You can cut down saturated fat intake by replacing it with monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. So you should not focus solely on limiting saturated fats but also on replacing them with healthy options like olive or avocado oil.

However, the most important thing to remember here is that trans-fats are the only of many types of fat that has been proven by countless studies to be one of the most harmful dietary substances to consume [6].

Here are some guidelines if you have to limit your saturated intake and improve your body composition and overall health:

  1. Check the calorie count: If your daily calorie intake is more than 10% saturated fat, make modest adjustments at first and add to them over time.
  2. Look up the Nutrition Facts label: The label breaks down total fat by saturated and trans fat. Monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids should also be listed on the label.
  3. Make healthy choices: You could also replace the high-fat animal proteins in your diet with plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, and nuts. These replacements are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol-free and often higher in fiber.

FAQs

How Much Saturated Fats Should You Eat?

You should eat 13 grams of saturated fats per day. That is around 10 percent of your daily calorie intake.

What Are Good Alternatives to Saturated Fats?

Good alternatives to saturated fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These healthier types of fat are found in plant-based foods like olive oil, nuts, and avocados.

Should You Reduce Saturated Fat Intake?

You should reduce your saturated fat intake if it takes more than 10 percent of your daily calorie consumption. According to the American Heart Association, limiting saturated fat to 7 percent of your daily caloric intake is a good way to reduce your risk for heart disease.

But as we’ve said, the jury is still out so these recommendations might eventually change.

In the meantime, if you want to speed up your weight loss efforts, check some of the following high-quality fat-burners:


References:

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good
  2. https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-saturated-fat
  3. https://www.cochrane.org/CD011737/VASC_effect-cutting-down-saturated-fat-we-eat-our-risk-heart-disease
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34547017/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4593072/
  6. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/transfats/

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