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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Saturated Fat

As we celebrate our tickers, I thought I would take a look at one of the ingredients that seems to cause us so much grief.
 
We are told that eating foods containing saturated fats raises cholesterol levels in your blood. We know that high levels of LDL cholesterol, along with elevated triglycerides (fats in the blood) increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
 
What exactly are saturated fats? A bit of chemistry for you. Saturated fats are fat molecules with no double bonds between their carbon molecules because they’re saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats remain solid at room temperature. Think butter. (Actually, no; don’t think butter. Never think butter…)
 
These fats remain stable under heat so the body has an incredibly challenging time breaking them down for you to digest.  

Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods, mostly animal products, including meat, lamb, pork, poultry, milk, lard, butter and cheese.  It’s important to remember that saturated fats are often found in packaged baked goods, fried foods and even some plant-based sources like palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil (but the plant-based versions don’t contain cholesterol).

Not ironically, these foods are usually also high in calories making for a double whammy to your heart health.

Now I am of the mind that our bodies need fat from food to be healthy. It’s a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. We need it to build cell membranes which are the vital exteriors of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. Fat is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement and fights inflammation.

For our health, some fats are better than others. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats serve us the best. Industrial-made trans fats are just about the worst thing for our wellness. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.

All fats have a similar chemical structure: that chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms I mentioned earlier. The length and shape of the carbon chain along with the number of hydrogen atoms connected to the carbon atoms is what makes the fats different…and cause them to behave differently in our bodies.  We digest and assimilate monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats most easily.

So how much saturated fat is healthy for us? The American Heart Association recommends aiming for 5% to 6% of your daily calories from saturated fat. So let’s say you need about 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s a tablespoon. That’s the peanut butter on your bread or apple slices before the gym. It’s not a steak…It’s not sautéing everything you cook in coconut oil.

This is the part of the discussion where most organizations who talk about healthy living tell you to remove the skin from chicken, choose low or no fat dairy and eat lean meats.

But not me.

If you want to protect your heart and enjoy robust wellness, my advice is ditching animal protein and fat in your diet (I won’t even get into the karma piece of eating animals…). I advise you to move toward a diet rich in whole grains and vegetables, with protein from beans, tofu and tempeh and fats from plant sources like extra virgin olive oil, avocados and their oil, nuts and seeds.

You will never go wrong eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods from the plant kingdom and skipping animal fats all together. You’ll deliciously eat your way to a healthy heart.