Saturated Fats

Saturated Fats: What, Where and How Much?

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 – 2020 was just released and recommends limiting saturated fats, trans-fats, added sugars and sodium. We are going to take a closer look at each of these items individually in a four part series and answer the following questions:

  1. What are __________?
  2. Where are __________found?
  3. Should I limit __________?

Part 1 of 4: Saturated Fats

1. What are saturated fats?

As defined in the Dietary Guidelines, “saturated fats are fatty acids that have no double bonds. Fats high in saturated fatty acids are usually solid at room temperature. In fats and oils terminology, ‘unsaturated’ [have] ‘double bonds’ and ‘saturated’ [have] ‘no double bonds’ “(Enig, 23).

Saturated fats contain carbon atoms that are fully saturated with hydrogen. Since the atoms are fully saturated, this type of fat is very stable and suitable for cooking (i.e. coconut oil, butter) and also what makes it solid at room temperature. One important thing to understand is that every food that contains fat contains saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids in different proportions. Whichever fatty acid has the highest percentage dictates which name we refer to it by and what application it is best used for. This will make more sense as you continue below…

2. Where are saturated fats found?

Saturated fats are found naturally in many foods. Major sources of saturated fats include animal products, such as meat and dairy, as well as tropical oils like coconut or palm. Let’s take a closer look at the fatty acids found in some foods that are commonly known as saturated fats (meat, dairy, and coconut oil) according to the USDA Nutrient Database.

  • One pound of ground beef (90% lean, 10% fat) cooked:
    • Total saturated fatty acids = 19.833
    • Total monounsaturated fatty acids = 21.180
    • Total polyunsaturated fatty acids= 1.804
  • One pound of chicken breast (skinless) cooked:
    • Total saturated fatty acids = 4.497
    • Total monounsaturated fatty acids = 5.494
    • Total polyunsaturated fatty acids = 3.463
  • One 7oz. container, Greek yogurt, plain, whole milk:
    • Total saturated fatty acids = 4.790
    • Total monounsaturated fatty acids = 4.272
    • Total polyunsaturated fatty acids = 0.938
  • One tablespoon, coconut oil:
    • Total saturated fatty acids = 11.217
    • Total monounsaturated fatty acids = 0.861
    • Total polyunsaturated fatty acids = 0.231

What you will notice is that meat has been inaccurately labeled as a saturated fat when actually it has more monounsaturated fat!

3. Should I limit saturated fats?

According to the new Dietary Guidelines, “Intake of saturated fats should be limited to less than 10% of calories per day by replacing them with unsaturated fats…The human body uses some saturated fats for physiological and structural functions, but it makes more than enough to meet those needs. Individuals 2 years and older therefore have no dietary requirement for saturated fats.”

No dietary requirement for saturated fat! It seems odd that we would not have any dietary requirement for a natural fat that is used for physiological and structural functions, doesn’t it? In addition, as you learned previously, you cannot completely eliminate saturated fat from the diet since all fats are a combination of fatty acids.

Instead of focusing on the quantity of foods consumed (i.e. 10% or less of saturated fats), Dr. Sears approach is to focus on quality choices from whole foods.

Dr. Sears says, “We don’t need a ‘low-fat’ diet; we need a ‘right-fat’ diet.” Choosing to focus on quality rather than quantity is a different way of thinking. Instead of limiting and therefore restricting saturated fats, we should enjoy them in moderation.

What does this mean in everyday life? It means not fearing fat! Enjoy cream in your morning coffee, butter your toast, and use coconut oil to prepare a healthy dinner.



Enig, M. (2000). Know Your Fats: The complete primer for understanding the nutrition of fats, oils and cholesterol. (p. 23). Bethesda Press, Silver Spring, MD.