Key Takeaways (expand)
- Palmitic acid is a long-chain saturated fatty acid, and is the most abundant saturated fat in our diet.
- It’s also the most abundant fat in our bodies, due to being produced via de novo lipogenesis from the excess sugar, starch, alcohol, and protein we eat.
- Palmitic acid plays a major role in supplying energy through the oxidation of stored body fat.
- Palmitic acid can attach to certain amino acids in a process called palmitoylation; this allows it to act as a signaling molecule and alter the function of proteins.
- Via palmitoylation, palmitic acid can regulate the function of the glutamate receptor (critical in the central nervous system) and vasopressin receptor-2 (a key player in kidney function).
- Palmitoylation can also dysregulate protein activity in ways that disrupt membrane interactions, in turn promoting tumor growth, metabolic dysfunction, and neuronal diseases.
- Out of all the saturated fats, palmitic acid has the strongest capacity to raise fasting LDL cholesterol.
- Palmitic acid can also unfavorably alter blood lipids immediately after a meal.
- High blood levels of palmitic acid have been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality; however, since palmitic acid can be created from other macronutrients, its levels in the body don’t necessarily reflect dietary intake.
- Both animal models and human studies suggest palmitic acid can increase inflammation, negatively impact weight regulation, and suppress fat burning.
- Palmitic acid also has activities that could promote diabetes—including inhibiting insulin signaling, and affecting the hypothalamus in ways that reduce insulin sensitivity.
- The science is mixed when it comes to palmitic acid and cancer risk, with some studies suggesting an inhibitory effect for certain cancers (like prostate cancer) and others suggesting a promoting effect (especially for oral cancer and melanoma).
- Palmitic acid can potentially harm neurological health by increasing neuronal inflammation, impairing leptin signaling, activating astrocytes, and causing the death of neural progenitor cells—all of which feasibly contribute to neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.
- Palmitic acid is present in nearly every food, but the highest sources are palm oil, meat, dairy, and cocoa butter.
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Palmitic acid, also referred to as hexadecanoic acid in IUPAC nomenclature, is a long-chain saturated fatty acid. It’s the most abundant saturated fat in the diet, as well as in our bodies! In fact, it’s so widely present in foods that most people consume at least 20 g of it daily, and palmitic acid alone accounts for up to 30% of the total fatty acids in the human body: on average, a healthy 155-pound adult contains almost eight pounds of palmitic acid. This fat was first discovered in 1840 by a French chemist named Edmond Frémy, who isolated it from saponified palm oil (hence the name, “palmitic” acid!).
Palmitic acid (particularly when stored in fat tissue) is a major fuel source for the body. It also modifies blood lipid levels (especially LDL cholesterol), and has cellular signaling functions that give it a role in a number of chronic diseases, as well as obesity.
Palmitic acid is present in nearly every food source (from plant to animal to fungi!), but it occurs at particularly high concentrations in palm oil (making up 44% of the total fat content), meat and dairy (making up 50 to 60% of total fats), and cocoa butter. Other sources include most plant oils (including olive oil, avocado oil, corn oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, and canola oil) and eggs.
The Biological Roles of Palmitic Acid
As the most abundant fatty acid in the human body, palmitic acid plays a major role in supplying energy (through the oxidation of stored body fat). But, it has some other noteworthy functions as well! For instance, palmitic acid actually serves as a signaling molecule, helping regulate the development and progression of a number of diseases related to inflammation, metabolism, and neuronal health. Through a process called palmitoylation, palmitic acid can attach to certain amino acids (usually cysteine, but sometimes serine and threonine) and serve as a “switch” that alters the functioning of proteins—including mitochondrial proteins and membrane proteins. As a result, palmitic acid (via palmitoylation) can regulate the function of some very important receptors, including the glutamate receptor (critical in the central nervous system) and vasopressin receptor-2 (an important player in kidney function). Importantly, palmitoylation can also dysregulate protein activity in ways that lead to disease development, including by disrupting membrane interactions to promote tumor growth, neuronal diseases, and metabolic dysfunction.
Along with being provided from dietary sources, palmitic acid is produced by the human body via de novo lipogenesis—AKA the creation of fatty acids from excess sugar, starch, alcohol, and protein. Its biosynthesis is tightly controlled by insulin, and ultimately leads to the esterification of fatty acids into storage triglycerides (the fat in our fat cells). This also makes palmitic acid levels in the body a poor marker for dietary intake, since it can be so readily created from excess non-fat calories. In particular, factors like a sedentary lifestyle and ongoing positive energy balance (i.e., eating more calories than the body requires) can lead to overproduction of palmitic acid, even if its dietary intake is low. Even in the absence of calorie excess, very low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets have been shown to raise palmitic acid levels in the body due to enhanced synthesis of this fat from carbohydrates.
Interestingly, palmitic acid tends to distribute differently throughout various body tissues, with higher amounts incorporated into subcutaneous fat (the fat layer just beneath the skin) and lower levels in visceral fat (the fat surrounding abdominal organs).
Palmitic is also a major component of breast milk, although its exact content can vary considerably.
Problems From Too Much Palmitic Acid
Research on palmitic acid has uncovered numerous health issues associated with excess consumption, as well as with high levels in the body!
Palmitic Acid, Cholesterol, and Cardiovascular Disease
Among the saturated fatty acids, palmitic acid is the most potent raiser of LDL cholesterol—leading to some concern around its potential role in cardiovascular disease. For example, a variety of studies have demonstrated that palmitic acid increases fasting LDL levels, and a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that replacing palmitic acid with other fatty acids leads to reductions in LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B (a lipid-carrying protein that’s considered a major marker for cardiovascular disease risk).
A number of studies have focused on comparing the effects of stearic acid and palmitic acid, since these two fats have significant differences in how they impact blood cholesterol (and they’re both highly abundant in the diet!). In human trials, replacing dietary stearic acid with palmitic acid causes fasting LDL levels go up, whereas replacing dietary palmitic acid with stearic acid causes fasting LDL levels go down. In one trial of postmenopausal women, diets enriched with stearic acid had similar effects on LDL levels as diets enriched with oleic acid (the monounsaturated fat abundant in olive oil), whereas palmitic acid raised LDL levels in an unfavorable manner.
Palmitic acid and stearic acid also have different impacts on the postprandial period—AKA the blood lipid landscape that happens immediately after eating. Given that we spend the majority of the day in a postprandial state rather than a fasted state (because each meal we eat leads to physiological changes lasting many hours, during which our bodies adapt to the influx of nutrients!), postprandial blood lipids can actually have a significant impact on cardiovascular risk, and are just as valuable to study as fasting blood lipids. In one randomized crossover trial, participants spent four weeks eating diets rich in stearic acid or palmitic acid, and the palmitic acid period led to significantly higher post-meal triglyceride levels and apolipoprotein B48 levels (a marker of intestinal chylomicrons) than the stearic acid period.
Based on these findings, palmitic acid is generally considered more harmful than other saturated fats when it comes to cardiovascular health. However, whether these changes in blood cholesterol translate to changes in actual heart disease outcomes is another question entirely! Observational studies have indeed shown that elevated levels of palmitic acid in the blood are associated with greater cardiovascular disease mortality, and in vitro experiments suggest that palmitic acid can harm cardiovascular health in other ways (such as by causing cardiac contractile dysfunction, inhibiting new blood vessel formation, and impairing the migration of endothelial progenitor cells). But, because palmitic acid in the body comes from both dietary intake and from conversion from carbohydrates and protein, it’s hard to draw a direct arrow from dietary palmitic acid to long-term cardiovascular disease outcomes.
Other components of the diet could also influence how palmitic acid impacts cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease risk. Some human interventions have shown that when polyunsaturated fat intake is high, palmitic acid has no appreciable effect on lipoprotein profiles, nor does it increase the rates of cholesterol synthesis in healthy adults—in contrast to its LDL-raising effects when polyunsaturated fat intake is low.
There’s some evidence that the cardiovascular effects of palmitic acid depend largely on its position within the triglyceride structure (more specifically, where it’s bonded to on the glycerol backbone). Experiments show that a higher percentage of palmitic acid at the SN-2 (middle) position of this glycerol structure causes the fat to be much more atherogenic, compared to when a lower proportion of palmitic acid is in this spot. For example, one experiment found that lard (which has over 90% of its palmitic acid in the SN-2 position) promoted significantly more arterial plaque formation than tallow (which has only about 15% of its palmitic acid in this spot). When the fats were structurally modified to have the same amount of SN-2 palmitic acid, though, their atherogenic effects became virtually the same.
Palmitic Acid, Weight Regulation, and Energy Metabolism
A number of studies have tested the effects of palmitic acid on weight regulation, energy metabolism, and inflammation—with findings generally suggesting a detrimental effect relative to other fats. Rodent experiments, for example, have shown that compared to other fats (such as myristic acid, linoleic acid, and alpha-linoleic acid), palmitic acid causes fat cells to secrete higher amounts of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin 6—an effect believed to contribute to obesity-induced insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Other studies have shown a similar inflammatory effect from foods high in palmitic acid, with palm oil-enriched diets leading to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the plasma and fat tissue of rodents. Interestingly, when palmitic acid is injected directly into cerebrospinal fluid, it results in pro-inflammatory responses and leptin resistance—similar to what’s seen from diets known to produce obesity, and suggesting a role of palmitic acid on leptin signaling by the hypothalamus.
Human trials have produced similar findings here, too. In a double-blinded trial of healthy young adults, diets high versus low in palmitic acid (16.8% versus 1.7% of total calories, respectively) resulted in decreased fat oxidation (AKA fat burning) and lower daily energy expenditure, whereas oleic acid had the opposite effect. Likewise, compared to oleic acid, palmitic acid has been shown to reduce oxygen consumption both during and after exercise—suggesting a suppression of fat burning. Some evidence suggests gender could modify these effects, with dietary palmitic acid causing more significant reductions in daily energy expenditure in men than in women, but a more significant fat-oxidation-lowering effect in women than in men.
Palmitic Acid and Diabetes
Palmitic acid exhibits functions that give it a probable pro-diabetic effect. Studies show that diabetic patients have at least three times as much palmitic acid in their blood as non-diabetic adults, and palmitic acid has the strongest association with type 2 diabetes incidence when analyzed alongside other saturated and monounsaturated fats. What’s more, excess palmitic acid has been shown to enter cells through pathways that ultimately inhibit insulin signaling, leading to the development of insulin resistance. Palmitic acid-rich diets likewise cause an accumulation of palmitic acid in the hypothalamus, in turn inhibiting autophagy (a cellular clean-out process) in this gland and resulting in decreased insulin sensitivity.
Palmitic Acid and Cancer
Palmitic acid has also been studied in relation to cancer, although findings haven’t been totally consistent here. For example, both in vitro and in vivo studies have found an anti-cancer effect of palmitic acid on prostate cancer cells—apparently through inhibiting key molecules involved in the PI3K/Akt pathway, which is a major regulator for cell proliferation, growth, and angiogenosis.
Palmitic acid in the form of palmitate has likewise been shown to enhance the sensitivity of endometrial cancer cells to chemotherapy drugs (making the cancer cells more responsive to lower doses of the drugs), giving it a potential role as an adjunct to cancer therapy. But, when it comes to oral cancer and melanoma, mouse studies have shown that palmitic acid promotes the spread of cancer cells (whereas oleic acid and linoleic acid, tested under the same conditions, do not) by increasing the expression of genes associated with tumor metastasis.
What’s more, one fascinating experiment showed that palmitic acid actually induces an epigenetic memory in cancer cells that causes them to keep metastasizing even after their exposure to palmitic acid ends. In this study, researchers treated human oral cancer cells with palmitic acid, grew the cells in a palmitic-acid-free environment for two weeks, and then injected the tumors into mice that were fed a normal diet—only to find that the tumors continued to behave as if they were still being exposed to palmitic acid, metastasizing significantly faster than cells that had never been exposed to palmitic acid at all. In other words, the cells developed a memory of their palmitic acid exposure, leading to alterations in their genome!
In addition to this, cancer cells can use palmitic acid for growth via beta-oxidation, and palmitic acid has been shown to stabilize oncogenic proteins within cancer cells, giving them a survival advantage.
Some research even indicates a role of palmitic acid in the interplay between obesity and cancer. More specifically, palmitic acid governs the body’s cellular adaptations to obesity, and those adaptations have been shown to enhance the capacity of some cancer cells (such as breast cancer) to form tumors—including promoting the differentiation of cancer tells to a stem cell-like phenotype.
Of course, most of the available research we have on cancer and palmitic acid comes from exposing cells directly to palmitic acid and testing how they subsequently behave. This can’t tell us much about the effects of dietary palmitic acid specifically, since cellular exposure can also come from endogenously produced palmitic acid (made via de novo lipogenesis). So, it’s too early to say whether eating palmitic acid translates to changes in cancer risk.
Palmitic Acid and Neurological Health
Lastly, palmitic acid has a potentially concerning role in neurological health—particularly the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Various research has shown that palmitic acid can induce neuronal inflammation, cause the death of neural progenitor cells, activate astrocytes (specialized glial cells in the brain), generate amyloid-beta peptides, and impair leptin signaling—all of which feasibly contribute to neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s. In fact, experiments show that exposure to palmitic acid can cause Alzheimer’s-like changes in neurons. Several studies have even linked higher palmitic acid levels in the blood to reduced cognitive function. However, rodent models suggest the majority of palmitic acid in the brain is ultimately the result of de novo lipogenesis from carbohydrates—once again, making it hard to draw conclusions about the health effects of dietary palmitic acid specifically.
Health Effects of Palmitic Acid Deficiency
There are no deficiency or insufficiency symptoms associated with low palmitic acid intake. Given the ability of the body to synthesize palmitic acid from other macronutrients, and considering it’s the most common saturated fatty acid in our diet, getting too little of this fat is an unlikely concern! Currently, no specific guidelines exist for a safe upper intake limit, either.
How Much Palmitic Acid Do We Need?
Because palmitic is non-essential, there are no established guidelines for a dietary requirement.
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