Saturated fats – are they to be avoided?

It is important to include some fat as part of a healthy balanced diet. There was much confusion for many years around the consumption of fats, which to include, which to avoid and the debate around whether to consume ‘full fat ‘or ‘low fat’.

The truth is we all need fat in our diets. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself. It is a major source of energy and it helps in the absorption of some vital vitamins including vitamin A, D and E. Fat is needed to build cell membranes and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and in the production of some hormones. For long-term health, some fats certainly are better for our bodies than others. ‘Good’ fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. ‘Bad’ ones include industrial-made trans fats. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.

What are saturated fats?

All fats have a similar chemical structure – they are made up of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. What makes one fat different from another is the length and shape of the carbon chain and the number of hydrogen atoms connected to the carbon atoms. Just small differences in structure can cause crucial differences in the form and function of the fat.

The word ‘saturated’ when it comes to fats means that every carbon atom is surrounded by the maximum number of hydrogen atoms it can hold. Saturated fats are straight chains and can pack tightly together. They are a solid at room temperature.

What are the main sources of saturated fat?

Saturated fat sources are nearly all fats from meat and meat products, poultry and dairy products. It is are also found in coconuts, coconut products and palm oil. It can also be found in some chocolate, biscuits, cakes, pastries and in some savoury snacks too such as popcorn.

Moderation is the key when it comes to saturated fats

As mentioned above, we all need some fat in our diets, however it is important to be mindful of the amount. A small amount per day of saturated fat (around 8 % of calories) is plenty. Most people in the UK and western world eat too much saturated fats, an excess of which can lead to health problems such as high cholesterol, heart problems and obesity. The government recommends that:

  • men should not eat more than 30g of saturated fat a day
  • women should not eat more than 20g of saturated fat a day
  • children should have less

Saturated fat and fertility

There has been some research into the effect of saturated fat on fertility but much more is needed in this area. There are a few studies which conclude that consuming too much saturated fat may affect male fertility and lead to lower sperm concentrations and in others it was found that the intake of saturated fat was inversely related to the number of mature oocytes retrieved at egg collection during IVF. Being overweight or underweight however has been linked in studies to a higher risk of infertility (we will explore this further). So – the verdict on saturated fat – be mindful of the amount you are consuming! 

Red meat and saturated fat

I am often asked if it is okay to eat red meat when trying to conceive. Once again it is all about balance. Think about the Mediterranean type of diet guidelines which would be to consume around 1-2 portions of good quality lean red meat per week (if you eat meat) – chat to your local butcher for advice on which meat to buy if you are unsure. Red meat is a good source of protein and contains important vitamins, such as the B vitamins, and essential minerals like iron and zinc. Be mindful of the portion size.

Can I eat an egg a day?

Eggs are very nutritious and as part of a healthy balanced diet provide us with many important nutrients including: protein, iodine, vitamins A and D, some B vitamins including folate and B12. They also contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are good for the eyes along with choline, which is good for the brain and nerves. Eggs contain some saturated fat (around 1.5g in a large egg). Eggs do contain some cholesterol,  but it is important to bear in mind that it is the amount of saturated fat we eat that has more of an effect on the amount of cholesterol in our blood than the cholesterol we get from eating eggs. So, the bottom line is – it’s important to consider what you are eating with your egg as the saturated fat in butter, cheese, bacon, sausage etc for example, raises your blood cholesterol much more than the cholesterol in your egg. Go for a lovely salad instead or dip some asparagus in your boiled egg!

So – the advice at present is you can enjoy your egg a day as part of a healthy balanced diet, being mindful of what you eat with it!  You only need to cut down on eggs if you have a health condition that requires you to and have been advised to do so by your G.P, Dietician or qualified Nutritional Therapist.

And what about cheese……?

Cheese is a good source of protein and calcium but like other dairy products and many animal foods, most types of cheese are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. The cholesterol and saturated fat content vary depending on the kind of cheese – so the bottom line here is you need to start checking those labels and watch your portion sizes!

Interesting reading

Dadkhah, H., Kazemi, A., Nasr-Isfahani, M. H., & Ehsanpour, S. (2017). The Relationship between the Amount of Saturated Fat Intake and Semen Quality in Men. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 22(1), 46–50. 

European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. (2012, July 3). A high intake of certain dietary fats associated with lower live birth rates in IVF. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 29, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120703120655.htm

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