Although for several decades the American Heart Association and other health organizations have advised people to reduce their saturated fat intake, studies have consistently failed to show a link between saturated fat and heart disease. Because of this, the role of natural saturated fats in a healthy diet is now being reconsidered. All in all, saturated fats appear to be neutral in their health effects.
Fats also help us digest important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K that keep our brains, cells, hormones, tissues, hair, skin, and nails healthy (1). Fat provides the structural component to many cell membranes which are essential for cellular development and carrying various messages through our body quickly via hormones. In fact, fats are vital to hormonal health. I’ve worked with many clients recovering from eating disorders or very restrictive diets who have gone years without periods due to their low body fat percentage. There’s a fine line between wanting to be “toned” and “ripped” and being a healthy woman able to provide your body with enough fat reserves for healthy hormones and hormonal production. Fat is crucial for our bodies!
Trans fats are processed to prevent rancidity by combining liquid oil with hydrogen to make a solid fat. Trans fats are commonly found in margarines and vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and fast-food French fries. Look for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats or oils when you read labels, and avoid eating these foods if possible.
Monounsaturated fats are considered one of the healthiest types of fats to eat, and are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. They are found in olives, olive oil, avocados, nuts, nut butters, as well as sesame oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. (Be aware that most Canola oil in the US and Canada is GMO unless specifically labeled as non-GMO or organic.)
Certain types of fat also possess anti-inflammatory properties, which can help protect against chronic disease and help improve health. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have been shown to relieve inflammation and reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. (35) Monounsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, may help increase good HDL cholesterol, lower triglyceride levels and decrease the risk of heart disease. (36)
Meanwhile, the official unsaturated fat definition encompasses any type of fatty acid that contains at least one double bond within the chain. These fats are further classified as either a monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat based on the number of double bonds they contain. Unsaturated fats can include foods like vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish.
According to Ayurveda, fats are used to promote healthy skin, support satiety and calm the nerves. On an Ayurvedic diet, it’s generally recommended to steer clear of trans fats and include plenty of vegetable-based fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fat is also encouraged in moderation by increasing your intake of foods like ghee, coconut oil and grass-fed beef.
Investigators looked at the relationship between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Their controversial conclusion: “There is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD.”(13)
Consumption of hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated fats is associated with cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, immune system dysfunction, low- birth-weight babies, birth defects, decreased visual acuity, sterility, difficulty in lactation and problems with bones and tendons (13). It has also been shown to increase the risk of depression (14).
The type of fatty acids that make up coconut oil’s saturated fat content is medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and are about 65% of its fat content. Unlike long chain fatty acids (the majority of fats in our diet) which must go through modification prior to being digested and absorbed in our bodies, medium chain triglycerides are passively diffused from our gastrointestinal tract to the portal system. In other words, our bodies find it super easy to break down the fat before getting rapidly absorbed and used for energy by the body. Coming from a clinical background, MCT’s are very commonly used in treating people who have malabsorption issues, are on ketogenic diets, or are increasing calories without much volume.
Other studies have confirmed the health benefits of following a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet. In one study, women lost more weight following a low-carbohydrate diet than a low-fat diet (5). In addition to weight loss, studies also show that low-carb, high-fat diets reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce triglycerides while raising HDL cholesterol levels (6,7).