Saturated fats are essential to life—they provide support to your cell membranes and serve as precursors to a variety of hormones and hormonelike substances. Saturated fat is the
most abundant type of fat in human breast milk—arguably nature’s ideal food for a newborn. Usually solid at room temperature, saturated fat is most commonly found in full-fat dairy like cheese, butter, and ghee, meats like beef, pork, and chicken, and even certain
fruits like coconut and olives. (Extra-virgin olive oil is nearly 15 percent saturated fat.)
Saturated fats have had a lot of bad press in recent years, having become vilified as the “artery-clogging” fat. Quite literally, these are the fats our mothers warned us about. But
unlike the toxic fats we’ve traded them in for (grain and seed oils like canola, corn, and soybean oil), saturated fats are the most chemically stable and the most appropriate to
use for higher-heat cooking. Welcoming saturated fats (such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and ghee) back to the kitchen is a biologically relevant, real-world application that
may have a major benefit on your health.
A Fat Framed?
As a nutrient, saturated fat is not inherently unhealthy or healthy. Its role in your health is dependent on a few questions, such as: Do you eat a lot of sugar? Is your diet heavy in processed foods? Do you consider ketchup a vegetable? This is because saturated fat can magnify the deleterious effects of a high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient diet.
Unfortunately, ultra-processed convenience foods tend to be high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, and they are often combined with equal amounts of saturated fat. Picture
hamburgers on white-flour buns, cheesy pizzas, creamy pasta dishes, deluxe nachos, burritos, ice cream, and even the seemingly innocuous bagel with butter. These foods
now make up 60 percent of the calories consumed in the United States and are highly damaging to our health.
Some research suggests that the combination of carbs and fat in a given meal can induce a temporary state of insulin resistance, a form of metabolic dysfunction that increases inflammation and fat storage. That our bodies become confused when high amounts of saturated fat and carbohydrates are consumed together should not come as a surprise.
After all, you would have a hard time finding foods in nature that contain both saturated fat and carbohydrates. Fruit is mostly pure carbohydrate and fiber, and low-sugar fruits like avocado and coconut contain ample fat but very little carbohydrate. Animal products are usually pure fat and protein. And vegetables, whether starchy or fibrous, are usually free of fat. Dairy would be the one exception, where saturated fat and sugars are combined —which may help it serve its evolutionary purpose of helping a young animal put on weight. Otherwise, only modern foods regularly marry saturated fat and carbohydrates, combined usually with the intent of promoting overconsumption.
SATURATED FATS IN YOUR BLOOD
Blood levels of saturated fat have been linked with increased risk for dementia, but how do those fats get there in the first place?
“It is commonly believed that circulating fatty acids reflect dietary intake, but the associations are weak, especially for SFA (saturated fatty acids),” wrote researchers from Ohio State University in PLOS ONE, seeking to answer this very question. They found that two of the saturated fats linked with dementia, stearic and palmitic acids, did not become elevated in the blood even when their subjects consumed them in amounts as high as
84 grams per day—the equivalent of nearly eleven tablespoons of butter!
On the other hand, the highest circulating saturated fats were measured after the subjects consumed a high-carbohydrate diet, while eating fewer carbohydrates led to lower circulating levels. As it turns out, most of the body’s circulating levels of saturated fats originate in the liver, where they are produced in response to carbohydrates—a process called lipogenesis, or fat creation. Other studies have demonstrated similar results, proving that our bodies are dynamic chemistry labs that don’t always follow simple logic—a fact often used to sell food products, pharmaceutical drugs, or general misinformation.
Saturated Fat and the Brain: Friends or Foes?
When it comes to the impact that saturated fat has on the brain, finding truthful answers can be tricky. Close inspection of many animal studies nearly universally reveals that what is reported as a “high-fat diet” for the animals is, in reality, a toxic slurry of sugar, lard, and soybean oil.
This might trace back to a basic labeling oversight—lab suppliers of rat chow often label diets meant to mimic the Standard American Diet as simply “high fat.” Don’t get me wrong: animal studies like these are incredibly valuable. Thanks to these studies, we have some
clues as to why people who adhere more closely to the high sugar, high-fat Standard American Diet tend to have smaller hippocampi—the structure in the brain that processes our memories. These studies also tell us that the combination of sugar and saturated fat (common in fast food) can drive inflammation and drain BDNF from the brain.
The problem is, this nuance is often lost when the media reports on these findings, resulting in misleading headlines such as “How a High-Fat Diet Could Damage Your
Brain”—which was the title of a widely circulated article posted on one well-known publisher’s site.
(The food used in the mouse study that the article was reporting on was 55 percent saturated fat, 5 percent soybean oil, and 20 percent sugar.) Unless readers went out of their way to find the original study, assuming they’d even have access to it and didn’t glaze over from the jargon, they could easily interpret this as a strike against high “healthy fat” diets—those that are low in processed carbohydrates and polyunsaturated oils and high in omega-3 fats, nutrient-rich vegetables, and the relatively small amount of saturated fat found in properly raised animals’ products.
How Much Saturated Fat Is Good For Brain?
The question that remains is how much saturated fat should be consumed in a brain-optimal diet. While the evidence warning us to avoid saturated fat is, and has always been, shaky at best, there is also scant evidence to suggest that chasing saturated fat has any benefit to the brain (unlike, for example, monounsaturated fat, which is the primary fat in extra-virgin olive oil).
While the details are still being unraveled, you can rest assured that what’s good for your body is also very likely good for your brain. What we’re beginning to learn is that nutritionally poor Westernized diets that are rich in processed polyunsaturated oils and rapidly digestible carbohydrates are the true culprits in not only cardiovascular disease but obesity and type 2 diabetes—and, as research is now making clear, brain
disease as well.
For these reasons, I place no restriction on the consumption of saturated fats when they are contained in whole foods, or when they are used for occasional higher heat cooking. (The main oil in your diet should always be Genius Food #1—extra-virgin olive oil.)