What exactly are saturated fats? Today I’m delving into the nuances of saturated fat – a guide to all of the individual fatty acids that make up the saturated fats we eat, store, and burn.
I’m not going to cover every single saturated fatty acid that is out there. Some do not play an essential role in human health or nutrition, such as cerotic acid, which is primarily found in beeswax. Or arachidic acid, which you can get by hydrogenating arachidonic acid or eating a ton of durian fruit. There are still some that are not very relevant.
Instead, I’ll cover the main ones.
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Definition of saturated fat
A fatty acid molecule is typically an arrangement of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats have two main characteristics:
- All or most of the carbon-hydrogen bonds are single bonds
- All available carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen atoms
This makes saturated fats very stable and resistant to oxidation and rancidity, even when heated. Therefore, our bodies tend to build cell membranes with a significant amount of saturated fat. They ensure stability and a strong foundation.
The 5 main categories of saturated fats
The saturated fats that you most commonly see in the human diet include:
- Caproic acid, caprylic acid and capric acid
- Lauric acid
- Myristic acid
- Stearic acid
- Palmitic acid
Again, there are a few other categories of saturated fat that aren’t that relevant to human nutrition, so I’ll go over the main ones.
1. Caproic acid, caprylic acid and capric acid
Caproic acid, caprylic acid, and capric acid are all medium-chain triglycerides, which means that the fatty acid molecule has a tail length of 6-12 carbon atoms. Short chain fatty acids have less than 6 carbon atoms and long chain saturated fats have more than 12.
I put these together because their names come from the Latin word for “goat” and all three are best known in goat milk – they contain around 15% goat milk fat. You can also find capric acid in smaller amounts in coconut oil (10% coconut fat) and palm oil (4% palm fat).
The “goat fats” give the goat milk its characteristic “goat smell”. Come on and think about it, I had coconut oil that had a “funk” and I bet the capric and caprylic acids were to blame. But if you can overcome the goat, these fatty acids have benefits.
- Capric acid has been used to inhibit seizures in people with epilepsy. When you combine them with caprylic acid, the anti-seizure effect seems to increase.
- As medium-chain triglycerides, goat fatty acids increase ketone production. In fact, caprylic acid is the most ketogenic medium chain triglyceride of all.
- Capric acid has antifungal properties and shows particular effectiveness against candida, while all three are effective against oral bacteria.
Best sources of capric acid, caprylic acid and caproic acid: Goat milk, coconut oil, palm oil
2. Lauric acid
Another medium-chain triglyceride, lauric acid, is the primary fatty acid in coconut fat (40-50% lauric acid) and palm kernel fat. It is also found in breast milk (about 6.2% of total fat).
- Lauric acid is antimicrobial. That’s why it’s found in breast milk – to help infants fight off pathogens while their immune systems are still developing. And it’s probably why people report getting rid of toenail and toenail fungus by smearing coconut oil on their feet.
- Lauric acid reduces hunger. In one study, people who were shot directly into the intestines with lauric acid ate less food than people who were shot with oleic acid.
- When you consume lauric acid, some of it is converted to monolaurin, a more powerful compound (both coconut oil and breast milk contain monolaurin directly) with antiviral, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties.
- Lauric acid isn’t as directly ketogenic as the medium-chain “goat-like” triglycerides.
Best sources of lauric acid: Coconut oil, palm kernel oil, breast milk
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3. Myristic acid
Myristic acid is confusing. Some studies have found that its presence in the blood indicates metabolic problems, while, as you will see below, it can have some good effects in diet and play some important roles.
What’s happening? Why the discrepancies?
- Some in the diet are much better than none. Too much more than 1-2% of the calories (about 10% of the calories from milk fat), and the benefits begin to decline and even reverse. This limit of “1-2%”, however, was related to a diet with a higher carbohydrate content. If you have fewer carbohydrates, you can likely benefit from higher intake.
- Myristic acid in the blood is less “dangerous” than it is an indication of a metabolic disorder. For example, the most reliable way to lower the levels of myristic acid in the blood is to reduce your carbohydrate intake.
Best sources: Coconut fat, palm kernel oil, milk fat, breast milk
4. stearic acid
Stearic acid is experiencing a renaissance recently. People mix isolated stearic acid in clarified butter to make a “super stearic acid butter”. Why?
- Stearic acid is one of the saturated fats that even SFA phobes admit to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels. If anything, it increases HDL.
- Dietary stearic acid seems to cause The “melting” of our mitochondria – the power plants of our cells – and the increase in fatty acid oxidation shortly after consumption. In other words, it’s a great boost to our ability to generate energy.
- Diets based on either red meat or cheese – two foods high in stearic acid – improve metabolic and blood markers.
It gets really difficult to deny the benefits of stearic acid.
Best sources of stearic acid: Cocoa butter, beef fat (ox / stearin), dairy products, lard
5. Palmitic acid
Palmitic acid is getting a terrible reputation. In one study after another, we find that palmitic acid damages our cells and our health markers. And when you immerse cells in pure palmitic acid, they tend to suffer and even die. That looks really bad.
For example, palmitic acid lowers the expression of the LDL receptor gene. Less LDL receptor activity, more time for LDL to hang around in the bloodstream causing problems. This is not good.
Or the fact that palmitic acid is toxic to skeletal muscle cells, interfering with glucose uptake, and increasing insulin resistance.
Or that palmitic acid causes inflammation and disrupts insulin signals, suggesting diabetes. We don’t want diabetes, we don’t want heart disease, and we want our muscle cells to work, so we should probably stop eating palmitic acid, right?
Besides a little oleic acid, it stimulates the LDL receptor activity. And arachidonic acid, a polyunsaturated fat that is often found in animal products alongside palmitic acid, prevents cell toxicity. Finally, if you toss in some oleic acid along with that “inflammatory” palmitic acid, you will eliminate the inflammation.
Okay, but what about serum palmitic acid as a harbinger of a metabolic disorder? Easy. When you eat too much sugar and there is nowhere to put and you can’t burn it, the liver will convert any extra into palmitic acid to store. Elevated palmitic acid is a marker of excess carbohydrate consumption (and foods in general).
Best sources: Milk fat, ruminant fat, palm oil.
What is that supposed to mean?
Although today’s post was about the individual saturated fat, we very rarely eat individual fatty acids. Instead, we eat fats that contain half a dozen or more fatty acids, or foods that contain fats that contain half a dozen fatty acids. We don’t cook with lauric acid or sprinkle pure palmitic acid into the pan. We eat food. And as part of the food matrix, all of the saturated fatty acids I have examined play an important and valid role.
If you want to avoid palmitic acid but say hello to stearic acid, guess what? You need to make some Frankenstein fat. Foods that contain stearic acid also contain palmitic acid. The best sources of lauric acid are also quite high in stearic acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid. And so it goes. You cannot avoid palmitic acid and only eat lauric and stearic acid while actually eating.
If you have any questions, drop them below.
Thanks for reading, everyone!
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with an original lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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