Is saturated fat really good for you?
Just because some types of saturated fats are less bad, does it follow that more saturated fat is good?
Search the web any day of the week on fat, and you're likely to come across reports suggesting that saturated fats - the type found in meat and dairy that we're told cause heart disease and more - may not be as bad as was previously thought. This adds to a popular theory that saturated fats might actually, in fact, be good for us. (It's commonly reported that butter is better because it's full of vitamins, for example.) So should we be loading up on cream and butter and ditching the olive oil and low-fat dairy?
As is often the case in science, the answer is not so simple. Saturated fats are not just one type of fat - they are a whole category. And as is the case with polyunsaturated fats (where an overload of omega-6 in relation to omega-3 is thought to be unhealthy), some types of saturated fat seem to be - if not better, perhaps less harmful - than others.
Current evidence suggests that palmitic and myristic acids - saturated fats found in butter, cheese, milk, palm oil, coconut oil and meat - are potentially harmful, contributing to inflammation, elevated lipids and vascular disease. On the other hand, stearic acid - also found in meats and dairy products, as well as dark chocolate - appears not to be harmful. The scientific jury is still out on lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut fat. Confused yet?
But just because some types of saturated fats are less bad, it doesn't follow that more saturated fat is good. As usual, we need to take a big-picture view. If the only message you take from all the internet stories is "eat more butter, cream and coconut oil", you're probably going to do more harm than good. If you simply add saturated fat into a diet that's already high in refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and low in vegetables (as is the case for a lot of people), it's a potential recipe for disaster. On the other hand, if you're eating a stunning diet with lots and lots of plant foods, no junk food, cakes, biscuits, alcohol or sugary drinks, then a little bit of butter is unlikely to hurt you.
It is worth noting there is a lot of evidence for the benefits of one of the healthiest diets in the world - a diet that's low in saturated fats but high in plant food and includes healthy unsaturated fats from fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet is not a million miles from the way many of us eat now - if we add more vegetables and fish and cut out the junk.
So right now I'm saving the coconut oil for my skin and sticking to other fats for cooking. As for butter, I like a little bit for the taste. But to get any useful vitamins or minerals I'd need to eat far more than I'm comfortable with.
So I'm getting my vitamins from veges and most of my fat from oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil.
Niki Bezzant is a healthy cooking expert and the editor of Healthy Food Guide magazine, latest issue on sale now.
Do you have a question for Niki? Email editor@healthy food.co.nz with SST in the subject line.
Sunday Star Times