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Ask the Diva: Does it Matter Where Saturated Fat Comes From?

We tend to think of saturated fat as the fat in meat and butter. But some plants also contain saturated fat. Nutrition Diva explains.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
September 30, 2013

Q. "I was surprised to learn that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. I thought saturated fat only came from animals. Is this a different type of saturated fat? "

A.  This is a very common misunderstanding! I think it stems in part from our government's dietary guidelines, which falsely equate saturated fat with animal products.  

Many people believe that saturated fat is only found in animal products. Many also think that the fat in animal products like meat and butter is all saturated. Neither is true.

Virtually all plant-based fats, including nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and olive oil, contain some saturated fat. The fats in coconut and palm kernels oil are almost entirely saturated. Meanwhile, animal-based fats like butter and lard contain large amounts of unsaturated fat as well as saturated fat. 

There are differences between the saturated fats that you find in plants and those in animals: saturated fats in plants tend to be smaller molecules. In fact, there's a bit of a debate going on as to whether plant-based saturated fats affect us the same way animal-based saturated fats do. Some argue, for example, that plant-based saturated fats won't increase your cholesterol the way animal-based saturated fats do. For that matter, there's a pretty big debate going on about whether saturated fats - from any source - are really the bad guys they've been made out to be.

Although I do think that saturated fats have been somewhat unfairly stigmatized, I don't think it's wise to go to the other extreme, either. Both coconut oil and butter both have a place in a healthy diet, but I wouldn't use them as my only source of fat. 

See also: What Are the Benefits of Coconut Oil? and When to Use Olive Oil

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