Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. They’re found in animal products like beef, pork, milk, and cheese. Research on whether or not they’re healthy is mixed.

The role of saturated fat in the diet has been studied for many years.

However, research on whether or not it forms part of a healthy diet is still mixed.

Keep reading to learn more about saturated fat, the research controversy, and its effect on your health.

Fat is an important macronutrient that plays an essential role in many aspects of human health.

There are three main categories of fats, which are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules:

Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules and contain only single bonds between carbon molecules. On the other hand, unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between carbon molecules.

This saturation of hydrogen molecules results in saturated fats being solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, tend to be liquid at room temperature.

Keep in mind that there are different types of saturated fats depending on their carbon chain length. These include short-, long-, medium-, and very long-chain fatty acids. They all have different effects on health.

Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products and tropical oils. These include:

Healthcare professionals often refer to saturated fats as “bad” fats and group them with trans fats, which may cause health issues. However, evidence on the health effects of saturated fat is far from conclusive.

For example, health organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA) have recommended keeping saturated fat intake to a minimum for the past 60 years, and instead replacing it with nutrient-dense foods.

However, a 2020 review found many inconsistencies in the research, such as no link between heart disease and saturated fat. The authors concluded that more research is needed to support the AHA’s recommendations.

Indeed, health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes have risen in the past 40 years. Some experts suggest that eating too many simple carb-rich, processed foods may have a bigger role than saturated fat.

The AHA recommends that only 5–6% of your daily calories come from saturated fats.

Numerous studies have shown that saturated fat intake increases heart disease risk factors, including LDL (bad) cholesterol and apolipoprotein B (ApoB).

LDL is a type of protein that transports cholesterol through your bloodstream. Too much LDL can lead to plaque forming in your arteries. This could increase your risk of several health conditions, including heart disease.

ApoB is a protein and a main component of LDL, which is also considered a strong predictor of heart disease risk.

Saturated fat intake may increase both of these risk factors, as well as impact the LDL-to-HDL cholesterol ratio.

HDL (good) is a heart-protective protein. It carries cholesterol from your bloodstream back to the liver, which then flushes it out. Low HDL is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cardiovascular complications.

All this said, a 2017 study found no significant association between saturated fat and mortality from cardiovascular disease or any other cause. The researchers also found that higher saturated intake was linked to a lower risk of stroke. An increased risk of death was associated with high carbohydrate diets, too.

Research indicates that consuming a lot of saturated fat may adversely affect health. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all saturated fats are created equal.

For example, a diet high in saturated fats from fast food, fried products, sugary baked goods, and processed meats is likely to affect your health differently than a diet high in saturated fats from dairy, grass-fed meat, and coconut.

Another problem is focusing solely on macronutrients, rather than the diet as a whole. How saturated fat increases disease risk likely depends on what foods it’s being replaced with, what it’s replacing, and overall diet quality.

One macronutrient can’t be blamed for disease progression. Instead, the diet as a whole is what matters because human diets contain a mixture of macronutrients.

Should you exclude saturated fat?

Research supports the AHA‘s advice to not focus on one “bad” food, but your overall diet instead.

For example, a 2016 review investigated the potential effects of butter on heart health and diabetes and found no clear association. It wasn’t clear whether increasing or decreasing butter consumption changed such outcomes.

Similarly, a 2017 study looked at the possible effects of butter, coconut oil, and olive oil in healthy adults ages 50–75 years. The researchers found significant changes in LDL and HDL levels between participants who ate either 50 grams of olive oil, coconut oil, or unsalted butter for 4 weeks. However, they couldn’t conclude whether reducing overall saturated fats could improve health.

It’s important to remember that there have been conflicting findings due to various factors, such as design and methodological flaws of currently available research. More well-designed studies on saturated fat are needed.

Foods high in saturated fat can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet.

For example, a 2016 review found that full fat dairy intake may have a neutral or protective effect on heart disease risk.

Conversely, consuming saturated fats in processed and fried foods is linked with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and other health conditions. These saturated fats are different than those found in milk or cheese. Replacing saturated fats with a high carb diet may also increase this risk.

It’s important to focus on eating a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients, plants, whole grains, and unprocessed foods. This may include nutritious foods high in saturated fat, too.

What is the difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat?

The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats lies in their structure. Saturated fats have no double bonds between the carbon molecules, which makes them solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats have at least one double bond, making them liquid at room temperature.

Is saturated fat belly fat?

A 2022 review found that saturated fat is more likely to be deposited in visceral fat around the stomach than unsaturated fats. The researchers also noted that eating more unsaturated fats may help promote weight loss. Similarly, a 2015 study found that increased saturated fat consumption is associated with more visceral fat.

How much saturated fat is OK for high cholesterol?

According to the AHA, less than 6% of your calories should come from saturated fat if you have high cholesterol. If your dietary intake is 2,000 calories per day, you should consume no more than 13 grams of saturated fat. That said, speak with a healthcare professional if you have high cholesterol. They can help determine the best amount of saturated fat for you.

Saturated fats have been viewed as unhealthy for decades. However, current research suggests that nutritious high fat foods can be part of a health-promoting, well-rounded diet.

Future well-designed studies are needed to fully understand the complex relationship between saturated fat and overall health. But, what is known is that following a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods is most important for health, regardless of the dietary pattern you choose to follow.

If you have concerns over whether you’re getting the right balance of macronutrients for your health, talk with a doctor or dietitian for advice.