Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Saturated fats are fatty acids that have no double bonds between the carbon atoms - the carbon atom chain is completely saturated by hydrogen atoms. These fats are highly stable and can be packed together quite easily. They usually form a solid fat at room temperature.
Saturated fatty acids are produced in the body from carbohydrates as well as can be found in animal fats like butter, cream, cheese and fatty meats and in some vegetable products e.g. palm and coconut oil, chocolate. Many prepared and especially highly processed foods have elevated levels of saturated fat and should be consumed in moderation.
Role of Saturated Fat in the Body
While saturated fats in small doses are essential for some function in the body they can be produced from both poly- and mono-unsaturated fats as well as carbohydrates in the human body when necessary, so there are no minimum amounts that have to be consumed daily, quite the opposite - it is recommended to reduce intake of saturated fats.
Along with carbohydrates and proteins, fats supply the body with much needed energy for all bodily functions. Furthermore, fats are considered a concentrated source of energy as they produce nearly twice the energy (calories) to the body per gram than carbohydrates or proteins.
Another important property of fats is the ability to slow down absorption of nutrients so that can you feel full for longer. They are also the building blocks for hormones and hormone like substances and cell membranes.
Although saturated fats are considered to be 'bad' fats, they are absolutely essential component of our bodies. For example, some fatty acids are critical for brain development and proper functioning of the nervous system. Fats are also needed to ensure absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K as well as various minerals and to ensure carotene conversion to vitamin A.
Saturated Fats and Weight Gain
Since unsaturated fats have one or more double bonds between the carbons they can be further transformed in the body and used up in their new form. Because energy is required for these processes additional calories are used up. In comparison, saturated fats cannot be changed or transformed further as there are no double bonds left to break and as such any excess that is not used to ensure body functions is stored away.
After the body has used enough energy derived from the intake of calories, it will begin to store any extra energy as well. The necessary storage space is then provided by fat cells - causing them to expand when filled up with energy that is to be released at a later time. Continuous expansion of these fat cells usually results in body weight increase.
This is even more the case for saturated fats as there are limited uses for it in the body.
Saturated Fats and Cholesterol
A diet high in saturated fats can result in increased levels of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is mostly produced in the body and is found in the blood.
Cholesterol is vital to ensure that every cell in the body works properly, it forms part of the outer cell membrane and hormones, as well as insulates nerve fibers. It is transported around using proteins and forms lipoprotein complexes. There are two types - low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL tends to stick to arteries and clog them up significantly if in excess increasing the risk of developing a coronary heart disease or even having a stroke or heart attack. It is considered the bad or harmful cholesterol whereas HDL is the protective or good cholesterol as it takes LDL back to the liver where it is excreted or broken down.
It has been found that the cholesterol found in some foods, e.g. prawns, liver, kidney, eggs, does not actually make a great contribution to the blood cholesterol levels. It is actually increased intake of saturated fat that results in high cholesterol and health issues related to that.
It is recommended to have a diet high in omega-3 and soluble fibre along accompanied with regular physical activity to increase levels of HDL and reduce or avoid any bad cholesterol related health issues.
Recommendations for Saturated Fat Intake
There is a lot of controversy around saturated fats and how healthy they are for you. While there is a lot of information available detailing how increased intake of saturated fats increases risk of developing heart diseases and weight gain, there has also been research showing that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated does not affect this risk significantly at all.
However, one thing is for sure, all fats are high in calories and we should be focusing on increasing our intake of seafood rich in omega 3, wholegrains, vegetables and fruits and decreasing salt and processed food intake.
Health professionals recommend that people get no more than 7-10% of all their calories from saturated fats. Saturated fats should also make up no more than one third of overall fat intake.
1g of saturated fat contains 9 calories and the recommended daily intake is:
- Men - 30g
- Women - 20g
- Children (5-10 years) - 20g