We’ve all heard that saturated fats are bad for us and that we shouldn’t eat foods that are high in them, but does anyone really know what they are or why they’re so bad? More importantly, do we know how saturated fats affect our performance on and off the field? To help you make an informed decision about saturated fats in your diet, here’s an in-depth look at saturated fats, what foods contain them, and how they affect athletic performance.
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What Are Saturated Fats?
Saturated fats are fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are “saturated” with hydrogen molecules. They are a fat with a triglyceride molecule containing three saturated fatty acids. All carbon atoms in the fatty acid chains of saturated fats are connected by single bonds. Most fats derived from animal sources are saturated fats. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. Fats in food are always a mix of different types of fatty acids. When people say “saturated fat,” they really mean the saturated fatty acids in the particular fat source.
Although saturated fats are often thought of as a group, there are many different saturated fats, and each has different uses in the body and potentially different health effects.
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Foods High in Saturated Fat
Saturated fats are found naturally in many foods, primarily from animal sources such as meat and dairy products. Examples include:
- Fatty beef
- Poultry with skin
- Beef fat (tallow)
- Other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2%) milk.
Many baked goods and fried foods also can contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil, are good examples of saturated fats.
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Foods Low in Saturated Fat
You should replace foods high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats, which are foods made with liquid vegetable oil but not tropical oils. Choose lean meats and poultry without skin and prepare them without added saturated and trans fat. Some healthy foods that are low in saturated fat include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
- Poultry, fish, and nuts
The American Heart Association recommends consuming 5% to 6% of your daily calories from saturated fat. So if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats—which translates to about 13 grams of saturated fat a day.
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Effects on Performance
Like all fats, saturated fats are a source of fuel for the body. They aid in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and some phytonutrients, they’re used to build cell membranes and they have many other purposes. There is some evidence of antibacterial properties of some some saturated fats. The human body can make all the saturated fat it needs, including from excess carbohydrates in the diet.
Eating foods that contain saturated fats can raise the level of bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Many foods high in saturated fats care also high in calories.
High levels of LDL can cause the arteries to narrow due to calcification and inelasticity. Eventually, sufficient oxygen-rich blood is prevented from reaching the heart and causing damage to the heart.
LDL transports 75 percent of the blood’s cholesterol around the body. However, this cholesterol sometimes undergoes a process of oxidation (i.e., it becomes an unstable molecule), which allows it to penetrate and act dangerously within the artery wall.
The body releases immune factors in response to oxidized LDL. Unfortunately, the body releases so many immune factors that they cause inflammation, which causes further damage to artery walls. Oxidized cholesterol also plays role in lowering nitric oxide; and lacking nitric acid, the blood cannot flow freely, potentially causing further cardiovascular problems. This makes it hard for athletes to have proper blood flow and oxygen transportation throughout their bodies to all of their muscles, ultimately hurting their performance.
- American Heart Association. (2015). Saturated Fats. What We Need to Know About Saturated Fats. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp
- Robson, David. (2011). Cholesterol: Good or Bad? How It Impacts Your Health. http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson76.htm