by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Meat, egg yolk, butter, milk, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil – they all have saturated fat.
For decades, we have all been led to believe that limiting your intake of saturated fat will help lower your ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, and therefore reduce the risk it poses to your heart.
Would you feel shocked if I told you that it has never been 100% proven that consuming saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease?
Yet, government guidelines and even the World Health Organisation tell us that we shouldn’t get more than 11% of our daily calories from saturated fat.
Is saturated fat really bad for your heart?
Saturated fat is said to increase blood cholesterol, which clogs major arteries, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.
In contrast, some scientists believe that this unproven theory (which was originated by Ancel Keys, PhD, in 1953) is one of the greatest errors in modern medicine.
Ancel Keys’s published paper, termed the Seven Countries Study, compared saturated fat intake with heart disease mortality. Keys chose results from seven countries out of the entire group. He ignored the results of 15 other countries.
In other words, there were 22 countries involved but the results of only seven fit his hypothesis. So he said goodbye to the other 15. Had he kept the entire 22, he would have no case and the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease would be nil.
Many experts believe that this research was key for bolstering the possibly flawed low-fat approach to diet and health that has ruled the world over the past several decades.
So, is it time to bring back the butter, or is the jury still out on saturated fat? Let’s explore further, shall we?
Those who stand firm on the evils of saturated fat
Researchers don’t agree themselves, so let’s first share what the ‘against saturated fat’ position has to say.
This side insists that saturated fat is bad for you. They strengthen their position by maintaining the fact that high levels of cholesterol cause arterial damage. Period.
David Richmond Sullivan at the University of Sydney Central Clinical School is one of those not ready to exonerate saturated fat. He clearly states that it’s not even debatable; saturated fat is bad for you.
What’s this all about: heart health or weight loss?
This is a really meaningful clarification because this is where most people get lost: in the context. The saturated fat debate is about heart health.
I want you to remember this: whether saturated fat is linked to heart disease or not, it can still make you fatter.
If you’re watching your weight, here’s some worthwhile background: saturated fat is stored in your fat cells directly (on average, out of 100 calories, 3 are lost via food thermogenesis and the other 97 are stored).
Unfortunately, fat is much easier to overeat because it is energy-dense (more calories per gram than any other food). So if you have a tendency to eat until having a full stomach, you’ll struggle with high-fat foods. Yes, this even applies to nuts, seeds, and coconut oil.
You’ll often hear me say that what works for others may not work for you, so be mindful of your own body and energy needs.
If you gain excess body weight as a result of eating butter and coconut oil daily, your risk of heart disease will be higher. In this case, it’s the ‘being overweight’ part that increases your risk.
Has saturated fat been exonerated for good?
Previous studies support the concept that replacement of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats (such as vegetable and fish oils) results in improved lipid profiles – i.e. lower bad cholesterol.
But a 2014 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which pooled data from over half a million people, concludes that consuming polyunsaturated fats to replace total consumption of saturated fat is by far an unfounded decision. In other words, these new findings do not clearly support the cardiovascular guidelines that tell us to use more polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fat.
If things weren’t confusing enough, the medical community questions the poor quality of the data pooled in the 2014 meta-analysis and still urges us to stick to a low saturated fat intake.
Let’s get practical
Even more curious is that if people are decreasing saturated fat in their diets, what are they replacing it with? And how healthy is the replacement?
Ideally, the replacement would be in the direction of supporting proper nutrition towards good health. David L. Katz, MD, the director at Yale University Prevention Research Center, guides us to consider the whole diet, not simply the individual pieces or nutrients in isolation. As he says:
No one thing is THE thing wrong with our diets, and no one food, nutrient, or ingredient will be our salvation either.
In her book What to Eat, Marion Nestle inspires us to:
…pay attention to the overall dietary pattern rather than worry about whether one single food is better for you than another.
Wholesome foods are the way to go for optimal health. Blaming disease on one aspect of our diet is foolish and unrealistic.
Why do we have a tough time getting the answer?
Essentially, the large amounts of data from the 2014 meta-analysis imply that there is “no significant link between saturated fat and heart disease.”
The big scream over fat and what the studies showed was that saturated fat increased the risk of heart disease. However, when a fresh systematic review like this one raises an even bigger question of that reality, it is of our best interest to be curious.
This is where a tiny focus can bring big trouble. Again, it is looking at the whole instead of the parts. Broaden your diet to include minimally processed varieties of foods.
And don’t discount the big picture: obesity does increase cardiovascular risk – no matter how you gained the weight in the first place!
Have your say
Do you think saturated fat has been exonerated after this new meta-analysis has come forth, failing to draw a link with heart disease? Or do you believe that we should stick to the dietary guidelines? Could it be that more research is needed?
Tell us what you think in the comments below! Share this with someone who might be able to use the information.