What About Saturated Fats?

Picking cherries for science.

It’s hard for me to realise, but it’s 2018 and people are still afraid of saturated fat in their diet. But recently I had a “discussion” with a nutritionist and it showed me that recent efforts in debunking the myth of saturated fats increasing your blood cholesterol level and therefore killing you, were fruitless. Even worse, a discussion quickly turns into a religious battle, where any counterarguments are quickly turned aside with the accusation of “cherry-picking” studies, leaving me wondering if they even think about it if they are the ones cherry-picking. So, let’s take a closer look on this highly controversial topic and let the picking begin 😉 !

The Seven Nation Myth

The foundation stone of our current fear of saturated fat was laid in 1952 by Ancel Benjamin Keys ‘diet-heart hypothesis’ and supported  by the famous Seven Countries Study in 1972. The diet-heart hypothesis was critiqued by many scientists, but the simple and fearful message that saturated fat was the cause of the ongoing heart disease epidemic proved more powerful than scientific skepticism. The problem with those studies is that Keys’s research was all incredibly shaky epidemiological and animal research without any controlled studies in humans.

The results of the Seven Countries Study was happily picked up by the USDA Dietary Advisory Committee and similar institutions worldwide, resulting in the common recommendation of a maximum of 10% of your energy intake should consist of saturated fat. Does this recommendation have any scientific background? Not really, they just observed a similar intake of saturated fat in diets that are commonly regarded as healthy (like Mediterrean or Ornish diet) and went for it.

Even if you take those guidelines as granted, it seems to be unlikely to “overconsume” saturated fat. Marty Kendall shows that a low glycemic diet, that is very high in consumed fats, only amounts about 9,7% saturated fat intake. This is a diet most people would consider “extreme” and even an “extreme” fat intake as it is the case in such a diet seems fine.

Science To The Rescue!

But what is the current science saying about all this? First of all, we have to get rid of the “saturated fat increases blood cholesterol” myth. Even back in 1963 Morris et al. reported no relation between saturated fat intake in the diet and blood cholesterol levels. And a large amount of recent research shows the same.

So, are saturated fats good for your health? I don’t want to turn this article into an agglomeration of links to studies, therefore I’ll keep it short and sweet (or fatty): we don’t know for sure. There seems to be a lot of conflicting data, you can find pros and cons for almost everything. Because of this, it isn’t surprising that the relation between saturated fat intake and actual health effects seems to be largely neutral. And those neutral effect has been found quite consistently, showing

  • No relation between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke or cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  • No relation between saturated fat intake and CVD, CHD, ischemic stroke, type 2 diabetes or, the most important measure of all, all cause mortality.
  • No clear relation between any fatty acid and coronary risk.
  • Even in people with pre-existing heart disease, there’s no relation between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular health complications or premature death.
WHO, (2008). The fear of certain groups of fats if completely unnecessary. Different types of fats have different functions and consuming a wide variety of fats is probably the best way to go.

What To Do Now?

What does all of this mean for us in practice? As we don’t have convincing data showing improvements for health by manipulating saturated fat intake, it is probably better for your health to stop worrying about all of this and to just eat real foods! You don’t need a oh-so-healthy yoghurt that claims to lower your cholesterol. It doesn’t matter if your whole grain breakfast cereals are supposed to be “good for your heart”. Just be smart about your food choices!

Switching from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (high in trans-fats) to olive oil or even butter will be better for your health than any of the gadgets the food industry has developed for you. Don’t increase your saturated fat intake by stuffing yourself with processed meat and skipping on good sources of unsaturated fat like olives and fish.

Perhaps if we focus on nutrient dense whole foods then issues like dietary fat and cholesterol will look after themselves? – Marty Kendall

Do you see a common trend here? Eat whole foods and you will be fine! And certainly don’t believe the fear-mongering of media. Yes, I think that highly processed foods are problematic for us. Read more here! I also wrote an article about my favorite fat sources, which could be of interest for you.

How much fat should you eat? Difficult to say, but the old “stay below 30% fat”-rule seems to be completely outdated and lacking any evidence:

Although prevailing dietary guidelines emphasise not exceeding 30% fat, such numerical criteria (is) not based on solid scientific evidence.

Hu & Willet (2002)

If you want to end the saturated fat fear, quench the cholesterol hate and stop health myths from spreading, make sure to like and share this article! You may also want to print it just in case you encounter a nutritionist and need something to stuff into their mouth before they can start preaching about the advantages of cutting all your saturated fats from your diet. Don’t worry, they will get enough oxygen to breath and still accuse you of cherry-picking, no matter how hard you stuff their mouth.

Please note that I don’t hate all nutritionists. There are excellent nutritionists out there and they do a lot for us, but they are well hidden! I only have a problem with nutritionists that are still green behind their ears, brainwashed by not-anymore-up-to-date professors, believing they know everything about the world. But at least they give me something to write about 😉

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