Mind, Blown: There Are Only *Two* Plant-Based Foods That Contain Saturated Fat, According to RDs

Photo: Stocksy/ Mindy Lopez Dunlap
Here at Well+Good, we recently spoke with registered dietitian Mia Syn, MS, RDN, author of Mostly Plant-Based, who shared some of the top short- and long-term benefits of following a predominantly plant-based diet. One of the biggest takeaways? That consuming more plant-based whole foods—like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds—can help reduce your risk of chronic illness and boost your longevity.

However, like all things in life, moderation is key—and certain foods can have an adverse effect on your health (yes, even plant-based ones) when consumed in excess. According to Syn, this includes added sugars, alcohol, and—today's topic of discussion—saturated fat.

Experts In This Article

The good news? “Nearly all plant foods—with a few unique exceptions, like coconut and palm oil—are free of saturated fat, which is directly linked to elevated cholesterol levels,” Syn says. If that doesn't highlight the significant heart health benefits you'll reap when you prioritize adding plant foods to your diet, we don't know what does. Here, we followed up with the registered dietitian to learn more about why it’s important to note the saturated fat content in all foods, including plant-based ones. Plus, she explains what the hype around coconut oil is really about.

The (only) two food sources of plant-based saturated fat

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), saturated fats—not to be confused with the many sources of heart-healthy fats—are predominantly found in animal-based foods, like beef, pork, poultry, full-fat dairy products, and eggs. That said, though most plant-based ingredients are free of saturated fats, there indeed are two commonly-used ingredients that contain it: coconut and palm oil. “Saturated fats are found in many store-bought baked goods such as cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pies, tarts, scones, bread, and rolls. Vegan products may contain them, too, such as vegan butter, vegan ice creams, vegan alternative meats, and vegan cheeses,” Syn says.

The AHA notes that saturated fats, often referred to as “solid fats” (because they’re typically solid at room temperature), can cause problems with your cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of heart disease. “Eating too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, in your blood. A high level of LDL cholesterol in your blood increases your risk of heart disease and stroke,” Syn says.

Of course, that’s not to say that one should never eat foods containing this type of fat. Rather, the key is simply moderation. The AHA recommends consuming a diet where only five to six percent of your caloric intake come from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. (That’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day.)

So, what’s with all the hype regarding coconut oil?

If coconut oil contains potentially harmful saturated fats, why are we seeing it popping up everywhere in things like bottled drinks, supplements, and snack bars? Because we’re highly motivated to stay well-informed about the ways diet culture can attempt to inform what we "should" be eating, we can't help but wonder why coconut oil has become a sensation overnight in the last few years—with claims that it increases energy and curtails your appetite—especially if it’s full of saturated fat. “One tablespoon of coconut oil has over 11 grams of saturated fat, which is close to the daily limit of 13 grams recommended by the AHA for heart health,” Syn says.

But does that mean it’s all coconut oil is "bad" for you? Not necessarily. “In recent years, numerous studies have linked medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of saturated fat found in coconut oil, to potential side effects, such as weight-loss and appetite control. However, most of the coconut oils sold in grocery stores have only 13 to 14 percent MCTs,” says Syn. “Despite these findings, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and AHA still advise limiting the intake of all forms of saturated fat coupled with a higher intake of unsaturated fats, the type produced from plant foods such as nuts and seeds, until enough research shows otherwise."

The TL; DR? This is yet another reminder that questioning what you see on the internet—especially when it's nutrition advice coming from an unqualified influencer—is hugely important.

An RD shares the pros and cons of coconut and MCT oil:

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...