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Nutrition and Metabolism

Saturated Fat

What is saturated fat?

Saturated fat is the major component of animal fat and is usually found solid at room temperature. However, the highest levels of saturated fat are from two plant sources: palm kernel oil and coconut oil. The “saturated” in the name means the fat molecule has reached the maximum accommodation for hydrogen bonds. In comparison, unsaturated fats contain one or more double bonds between carbon atoms so more hydrogen bonds can be formed. Unsaturated fats are mainly found in vegetable oils, and are normally liquid at room temperature. When artificially saturated by hydrogenation of vegetable oils, unsaturated fats become “trans fat” and solid at room temperature. More detailed information about the types of fats is available here.
Saturated fat and trans fat are known as the “bad” and “ugly” fat respectively in dietary literature.

Why is too much saturated fat harmful?

Saturated fat is the major dietary factor that causes “bad cholesterol”, LDL to increase in human blood, even more so than dietary cholesterol! In addition to this, saturated fat is the main fat that the human body makes from excess calories to store energy which leads to weight gain. Therefore, any saturated fat in diet will make weight loss less efficient.
However, trans fats are even more harmful. In addition to the harmful effects of saturated fat, trans fat interferes with normal fat metabolism and cannot be broken down by human body which can cause chronic health concerns.

How much saturated fat do I need in my diet?

Saturated fat is not necessary in your diet since the human body can synthesize it efficiently. In reality it is impossible to get rid of saturated fat completely. The USDA Dietary Guideline for Americans recommends that no more than 10% of total daily calories should come from saturated fat. This is equivalent to about 22g of saturated fat (or 2.5 table spoons of butter) for a person consuming 2000 calories per day.

Why is limiting saturated fat more important for people carrying certain gene variants?

Several genes involved in fat and cholesterol metabolism have variants that affect the way human body reacts to saturated fat.  Carriers of these variants cannot handle high level of dietary saturated fat as efficiently as the non-carriers.  For example, the APOE4 variant of the APO E gene that ranges in frequency from 10% to 30% in different ethnic populations, and three variants of the LPL gene that range in frequency from 25% to 75% in human population, make their carriers more prone to high levels LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) in response to diets high in saturated fat. Two variants of the ADIPOQ gene, ranging in frequency from 15%-25% and 41%-59% respectively in human population, and a variant of the APOA2 gene, ranging in frequency from 11% to 16% in human population, make their carriers more prone to weight gain in response to diets high in saturated fat. Hence it is critical for people carrying these gene variants to limit their dietary saturated fat intake.

Which foods contain high levels of saturated fat?

High levels of saturated fat are usually found in animal products while deep sea fish and plant oils are usually low in saturated fat.  However, the highest levels of saturated fat are from two plant sources: palm kernel oil and coconut oil (Table 1). Common foods that contain ingredients high in saturated fat are listed in Table 2.

Table 1. Saturated fat content in common food/ingredients.

Vegetable Oils
Coconut oil
Per 100 g (g) 92
Per Serving (g) 11.8
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Palm kernel oil
Per 100 g (g) 81
Per Serving (g) 10.4
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Olive oil
Per 100 g (g) 13
Per Serving (g) 1.7
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Canola oil
Per 100 g (g) 7
Per Serving (g) 0.9
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Animal Fats
Per 100 g (g) 62
Per Serving (g) 7.9
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Per 100 g (g) 39
Per Serving (g) 5
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Animal fat
Per 100 g (g) 30
Per Serving (g) 3.8
Serving Size 1 Tbsp (12.8 g)
Cheese, Cheddar
Per 100 g (g) 13
Per Serving (g) 5.5
Serving Size 1.5 oz (42.5 g)
Fatty Fish
Fish, salmon
Per 100 g (g) 2.5
Per Serving (g) 2.1
Serving Size 3 oz (85g)
Dairy Products
Per 100 g (g) 2.3
Per Serving (g) 5.6
Serving Size 1 Cup (244 g)



How do I reduce my saturated fat intake?

Simply knowing the amount of saturated fat you are eating is a daunting task. Reading the labels to find the saturated fat content helps greatly but the easiest way is to use the GB Food and Nutrition Calculator to get an accurate assessment.

Nevertheless, several guidelines can help you reduce saturated fat intake:

  1. Try to replace butter with canola oil or olive oil in home cooking to reduce saturated fat in home-made foods significantly.
  2. Choose fat free dairy products whenever possible, otherwise limit your portion size.
  3. When consuming animal-based foods, try to trim off as much fat as possible, or select lean meats (such as chicken breast vs. chicken drum) or meats lower in saturated fat (such as fish vs. beef).
  4. Many baked products and canned foods rely heavily on coconut oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil (tran fat) is commonly used in bakery goods. These products should be limited in your diet.
  5. Sport and party foods (pizza, hot dogs and sausages) are normally rich in saturated fat and should be subject to careful portion control.
  6. Avoid trans fat as much as possible. When go shopping, read the Ingredients description carefully to avoid the ones with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil as the major component. In the United States, trans fat less than 0.5% is listed as zero in the Nutrition Facts section of the label.  So many products listed the trans-fat per serving as zero while in fact the product contains much higher level of trans fat (for example, margarine).


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