With the possible exception of cholesterol, there has never been a more misunderstood facet of nutrition than saturated fat.
You've heard it all a million times: "Don't eat any saturated fat, it will clog up your arteries," or, "It will give you heart disease," and of course, "You'll become grossly obese and be shipped off to audition for the Biggest Loser."
Well, I'm here to tell you that you've been misled, misinformed, and downright manipulated by the media, medical organizations, and "health authorities" alike.
Thankfully for us all, this veil of dietary ignorance is starting to lift. Recently, popular health guru and one time anti-saturated fat zealot Dr. Andrew Weil admitted that he was wrong in his judgment of the effects of saturated fats on health, while also acknowledging the role that excess carb intake, particularly refined carbs, have on degenerative disease in America.
He was convinced, as were many others, in part by an analysis that combined the results of 21 studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this year. It found that, "Saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or coronary vascular disease."
There are many reasons – not to mention considerable scientific evidence – why you should consume reasonable amounts of saturated fat, but as a bodybuilder, I'm going to share the ones that are most compelling to me.
Now please note, I'm not going to suggest you consume pounds of butter or eat three pounds of fatty ground beef every day. What I am suggesting is that saturated fats are healthy and helpful if included in a balanced, sensible diet.
First, let's talk terminology:
- Saturated – "Saturated fat" means that all available carbon atoms are occupied by a hydrogen atom. You can see this in the picture on the right. The important thing to take away from this is that unlike unsaturated fats, saturated fats are highly stable, and not likely to turn into free radicals or go rancid when exposed to heat, oxygen, or light. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what you should be cooking with – yes, saturated fats, like grass-fed butter and virgin coconut oil.
- Hydrogenated – The term "hydrogenated" literally means they're blasting the chemical structure of the fat with extra hydrogen to bond to the carbon atom. This makes the fat solid at room temperature, and is essentially a man-made way to "create" a saturated fat. This chemical process wreaks physiological havoc, as trans fats are essentially poisonous to the body. At the cellular level, trans fats replace saturated fat in the cell membrane, and sometimes the essential fatty acids as well. When this occurs, HDL goes down, and Lp(a) goes up, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
- Short, Medium, and Long Chain – You should also be aware that there are short, medium, long chain, and very long chain fatty acid versions of fat. You'll hear more about the benefits of each below.
Short Chain Fatty Acids
These fats have 4 to 6 carbon atoms and they're always saturated fats. You'll find these types of fats in butterfat from cows and goats, and these fats are excellent. They're antimicrobial, and serve as great sources of energy as they're broken down quite readily. Instead of needing bile salts to emulsify them, they absorb directly from the small intestine to the liver for a quick conversion to energy.
Butyric acid, a short chain fat with 4 carbon atoms. A good source would be butterfat.
Medium Chain Fatty Acids
These fats have 8 to 12 carbon atoms and are found mostly in tropical oils like coconut oil, and in butterfat. There are numerous benefits associated with regular consumption of these fats as well, as they're anti-viral and anti-microbial. They also serve as a very efficient fuel source, as your body breaks these down very easily in the liver by way of the small intestine as described above.
Lauric acid, a medium chain fat with 12 carbon atoms. Some sources include coconut oil and breastmilk.
Long Chain Fatty Acids
These fats have from 14 to 18 carbon atoms. Examples are monounsaturated fats like olive oil, polyunsaturated fats like GLA, and then a saturated fat like stearic acid that's found in beef tallow.
There are reasons to like these saturated fats, too. In Sally Fallon's book, Nourishing Traditions, she talks about how stearic acid and palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which would explain why the fat that surrounds the heart is so highly saturated to begin with. In times of stress, your heart uses this fat.
Stearic acid, a long chain fat with 18 carbon atoms. Some sources include beef, cocoa butter, and chocolate.
Very Long Chain Fatty Acids
These fats have from 20-24 carbon atoms. Most of these fats are unsaturated like EPA and DHA. Since these are not saturated, we won't discuss this type any further.
So now that we have a basic understanding of the different chemical structure of fats, let's talk more about the benefits, and relate it back to the above versions of saturated fats.
6 Key Benefits of Saturated Fats
1 – Saturated fats positively affect hormonal function.
To be more specific, free Testosterone levels tend to be higher in those who include saturated fats in their diet. Free Testosterone should be a big deal to you, as it helps with muscle growth, tissue repair, immune system strength, and your sexual function.
Low-fat diets also increase Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin levels (SHBG). SHBG is a protein that grabs or binds to Testosterone, effectively making less free Testosterone available for your body. In my experience in working with athletes with low Testosterone levels, diets rich in saturated fats are the best way to deliver increased strength and size by natural means.
2 – Saturated fats help your tissues retain omega-3 fatty acids better and help convert omega-3 to its final usable form (DHA).
We've all heard about the wonderful benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on our cardiovascular system. What if I told you there was a way to retain omega-3 better in your tissues? In her book "Know Your Fats," author Mary Enig describes how to do it.
Enig and others say that EFAs like fish oil are indeed good for you, but that you don't need as much when you eat appreciable amounts of saturated fats in your diet. Though your tissues can retain the valuable omega-3's better when saturated fat levels are up to snuff, it's still a good idea to eat wild-caught sources of salmon, or take high quality fish oil caps like Flameout®.
Bottom line, there's no need to go crazy with it like some out there are suggesting.
What about plant forms of omega-3 like flax seed oil? The EPA/DHA Institute says that between 10-15% of the omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) converts to its usable form, DHA. This means that for every gram of fish oil you'd get from say, salmon, you'd need 6 grams from flax seed oil. But here's the good news if you like plant sources like flax: saturated fats help your body perform this conversion better!
One additional note: Research has shown that excess omega-6 will inhibit this conversion – so lay off the corn oil, and other omega 6-laden "dead" oil. It's crap.
3 – Saturated fats strengthen our immune system.
Although we're not tiny infants all our lives, we can still learn a lot from breastfeeding mothers out there. What's special about breast milk is that it has a lot of lauric acid in it. Lauric acid is a saturated fat of the medium chain type discussed earlier and is noteworthy for its ability to strengthen the immune system, which is why babies fed breast milk often have stronger immune systems.
Lauric acid is found in large quantities in coconut oil, another largely medium chain saturated fat, and for this reason I advise people use virgin coconut oil in their diets year-round. Be sure to not use a refined product that's been bleached, deodorized, or put through any of the other chemical processes. Get the non-refined virgin type.
The lauric acid that's in coconut oil has repeatedly been shown to exert anti-microbial effects and to reduce inflammatory immune system activity, including the ability to strengthen the immune system for HIV-positive patients. Be sure when buying coconut milk to get the full fat version to realize all the benefits!
Furthermore, those short chain fatty acids described above have excellent antimicrobial properties, meaning they fight bad bacteria in our guts and protect us from viruses. This is another reason why I love grass-fed butter; the butyric acid in it is short chain, and thus possesses these aforementioned benefits. My favorite way to use grass-fed butter is to put it on Ezekiel (sprouted grain) bread, on sweet potatoes, and on veggies.
4 – Saturated fats strengthen the liver.
The liver takes a beating every day thanks to all the toxins we eat, drink, and breathe in. There have been many animal studies demonstrating that beef tallow (beef fat) protects against alcohol induced liver injury. Coconut oil also protects the liver, as does palm oil and cocoa butter.
On the other side, diets high in polyunsaturated fat (mostly omega 6-laden oil) has the opposite effect, creating even more stress on the liver.
5 – Animal fats contain fat-soluble vitamins and allow for their uptake.
Those familiar with the types of diets I recommend will know that I'm a huge believer in fat-soluble vitamins.
If you eat a few carrots thinking you're going to get enough Vitamin A, you're wrong. With the exception that this type of Vitamin A is really a carotene that needs to be converted to active Vitamin A, there's no fat to help with its absorption. Now let's say you eat some beef liver: tons of vitamin A, and there's saturated and monounsaturated fat in it to help make it more bio-available.
How about egg yolks? When you throw away the egg yolk, you're throwing away 245 IUs of Vitamin A, 18 IUs of Vitamin D, and the healthy fat to help it absorb properly. So what you're really throwing away is the nutrient density of the food.
6 – Saturated fats help your cholesterol profile and can help you live longer.
If you replace carbs in your diet with saturated fat, you can expect the following:
- Lower triglyceride levels – When you eat carbs, it should serve as workout fuel, or as muscle glycogen replenishment. If you eat an excess of carbs, your liver converts them to fat (triglycerides), and then returns them right into the bloodstream. By keeping carbs lower, you avoid this.
- Increased HDL levels – Lower fat diets tend to lower cholesterol, but it comes at a cost. It also lowers the good stuff – HDL – and increases triglycerides, since a larger part of the diet is made up of carbs. Noted nutritional researcher Jeff Volek has many published studies confirming this.
- Increased size of LDL particles – Considerable research supports that the larger particles are not as atherogenic as the smaller pattern "B" particles, the ones that can cause problems down the road.
Research dating back to 1997 has shown that saturated fat can slightly increase LDL, but it also enlarges the particles. Jeff Volek's research demonstrated a 10% reduction in smaller particles, and this was with people increasing their fat consumption and decreasing their carb consumption.
Saturated fats make up at least 50% of cell membranes – What you look like on the outside is heavily influenced by what's going on inside, especially at a cellular level. You don't want too much saturated or unsaturated fat; you need a blend to have perfectly functioning cells transmitting messages in and out. Excluding saturated fats from your diet will have an impact on the cell. I'm going to keep this one simple and leave it at that.
Sample Saturated Fat-Friendly Diet
Before I get to the sample diet I created for you, I want to address the physiological fact that your body can create saturated fat out of carbohydrates as needed.
While this is true if you consume a lot of carbs, it's not so effective if you don't. I'm hoping you already understand that constantly pounding your body with excess carbs results in high insulin levels to manage blood glucose, which has been linked to nearly every degenerative disease known to humanity.
That said, here's a sample diet for you to better understand what kind, how much, and when you should be ingesting saturated fats.
The following example could work for a 200-pound hard training male athlete:
Meal 1 – 6 whole eggs scrambled in virgin coconut oil, served with 1 cup spinach
You get the fat-soluble nutrient density of the yolk noted above, plus the medium chain fats from cooking in coconut oil that will serve as an easy energy source and a potent immune system strengthener.
With the spinach, you get additional Vitamin A, since it will convert easily from carotenes to Retinol from eating the saturated fat in the eggs. If the chickens are truly free range (pastured) and have spent time in the sun, you'll also get much more Vitamin D. Free range eggs also have significantly more Vitamin E than standard eggs.
Pre-workout – 1 serving of Plazma™
Immediately Post-workout – 1 serving of Mag-10®
Meal 3 – Protein shake with 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter and 3 tablespoons raw organic coconut, 4 oz. grass-fed beef liver
For those on extreme weight loss regimens, I often change this meal to all protein and fat. I do this myself for 3-4 weeks of the year as a contest approaches. You're getting saturated fat through the coconut (medium chain fats again, very efficient sources of energy) and your body doesn't even need to use bile acids to break it down. The grass-fed beef liver is the golden part of this meal, and contains many nutrients including fat-soluble vitamins packaged with the fat to help absorption.
Meal 4 – 8 oz. of Grass-fed ground beef with 1/2-cup raw fresh pineapple
The key source of saturated fat here is the grass-fed ground beef. Along with the saturated fat, you get tons of heme iron – the form of iron your body prefers – plus B Vitamins, and a host of other nutrients. I should mention that there's quite a bit of monounsaturated fat in beef fat, about 49%.
Meal 5 – 2 cups of raw whole milk, whey and casein blend, and 2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter
Raw milk is awesome. You get a wallop of digestive enzymes like lactase, which is why those who are lactose intolerant can usually stomach raw milk just fine.
Here's something that should interest you: When raw milk is heated to 165 degrees or higher and pasteurization is complete, the enzyme phosphotase is destroyed. This enzyme is critical for proper absorption of minerals including calcium.
What does that have to do with saturated fat? The foods that have fat and protein built in together, like grass-fed beef and raw milk, ALWAYS offer extremely high levels of other nutrients, and better absorption of nutrients. When we eat what nature intended, without adulterating the food or throwing away the yolk, etc., we're always better off.
Meal 6 – 3 whole eggs covered with 2 teaspoons of red palm oil, 4 oz. ground turkey thigh, and a large salad with 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Red palm oil is about half saturated and half monounsaturated fat and loaded with Vitamin A and E. Percentage wise, there's not a ton of Vitamin E, but since this oil contains all different versions of Vitamin E, your body absorbs and uses it better than any other source.
Also, turkey thigh is a bit fattier then the usual 99% lean turkey you often see. I'll share this with you: I have many competitive bodybuilders eat a LOT of ground turkey thigh from Whole Foods while dieting. It's very similar to what you see in beef in terms of monounsaturated and saturated fat percentage.
A diet that will help get you leaner, help get you healthier, and provide you with much-needed energy to pound through tough workouts? All thanks to healthy amounts of saturated fat in the diet.
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- Emken EA, Dietary linoleic acid acid influences desaturation and acylation of deuterium-labeled linoleic and linolenic acids in young adult males. Biochemical Biophysical Acta, Aug 4, 1994; 1213 (3) 277-278
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- USDA National Database Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
- Conversations and mentorship with Dr Eric Serrano
- Conversations and interviews with Chris Masterjohn