Saturated Fats

Understand saturated fats and saturated fat targets in the Nutrient Explorer

What they are

Fat molecules have a long backbone of carbon atoms bound to hydrogen atoms. When a particular carbon is “saturated,” it forms a single bond with two other carbon atoms, and two hydrogen atoms. When consecutive carbons are “unsaturated,” they’re each only bound to a single hydrogen atom, allowing the neighboring carbon atoms to form a double bond with each other. This typically causes a bend in the carbon backbone.

A saturated fat is a fat with no unsaturated carbons. Since saturated fats have a straight carbon backbone, they’re more likely to stack up in an orderly fashion. This typically makes saturated fats solid at room temperature.

What they do

Like all fats, saturated fats provide energy and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Saturated fat intake is associated with higher heart disease rates and rates of all-cause mortality. This association is generally thought to be indicative of a causal relationship, because saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, which increases rates of cardiovascular disease by contributing to atherosclerosis (the hardening of blood vessels) and arterial plaque formation.

Recommended intake

Most public health organizations recommend that saturated fat intake should be as low as possible. As a rough upper boundary, the USDA and World Health Organization both recommend saturated fat intake to comprise less than 10% of total energy intake.

Of note, saturated fat intake doesn’t have the same effects for everyone. For instance, people with certain variants of the ApoE gene have lower overall rates of heart disease. When people with the “bad” version of the gene replace saturated fat with other nutrients, they experience a larger improvement in lipid profiles than people with the “good” version of the gene, suggesting that saturated fat intake has a smaller impact on blood lipids in individuals with the “good” version of the gene.

Furthermore, not all saturated fats are created equal. In general, it appears that long-chain saturated fats (saturated fats that have at least 12 carbons in their carbon backbone) have deleterious effects, while short- and medium-chain saturated fats (saturated fats that have 4-10 carbons in their carbon backbone) may have neutral or potentially small positive effects.

So, it’s not a bad idea for everyone to try to limit their saturated fat intake, but this recommendation may have large positive effects for some people, and much smaller (or potentially even nonexistent) effects for others depending on their genetics and their habitual sources of saturated fat intake.

Likelihood of tracking completeness: Very high

Virtually all foods in the MacroFactor database contain saturated fat information, so it should be easy to accurately track your saturated fat intake with consistent food logging.

For more on when you can track using branded foods versus common foods when you’re trying to accurately monitor your intake of particular nutrients, you should check out this article.

Likelihood of excessive intake: Very high

Average intakes of saturated fat in America, Europe, and most other developed countries exceed 10% of total energy intake.

Signs of excessive intake

There aren’t acute signs of excessive saturated fat intake that would be obvious without lab tests for dyslipidemia. 

For more on nutrients with a greater likelihood of insufficient or excessive intake, you should check out this article.

Foods high in saturated fat 

In general, animal products (dairy, meat, and eggs) tend to have a relatively high ratio of saturated fat to total fat content, while plant-based products tend to have a relatively low ratio of saturated fat to total fat content. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, chocolate (cocoa butter) and coconuts have very high proportions of saturated fat, while fish and shellfish have relatively low proportions of saturated fat.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about micronutrients generally, there’s a five-part series on the MacroFactor website you might enjoy.

Did this answer your question?