Is Saturated Fat Healthy?

Is Saturated Fat Healthy Is Saturated Fat Healthy?

Conventional wisdom (at least for the last few decades) says that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad for you and contribute to heart disease…. but what does the evidence say?

How it Began…

The fear of saturated fat began in the 1950s when Ancel Keys published a paper supposedly linking saturated fat/cholesterol with rising rates of heart disease. The problem, as this article explains, was his cherry-picking of available data:

“Keys based his theory on a study of six countries, in which higher saturated fat intake equated to higher rates of heart disease. However, he conveniently ignored data from 16 other countries that did not fit his theory. Had he chosen a different set of countries, the data would have shown that increasing the percent of calories from fat reduces the number of deaths from coronary heart disease.

And, as illustrated in the featured article, when you include all 22 countries for which data was available at the time of his study, you find that those who consume the highest percentage of saturated fat have the lowest risk of heart disease.

Furthermore, many have now realized that it’s the trans fat found in margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that is the true villain, causing far more significant health problems than saturated fat ever could!”

Here is a short video that sums it up in two minutes:

Despite evidence to the contrary, the saturated fat/heart disease theory was largely accepted and promoted in the medical and nutritional communities and is widely accepted today.

What if the Opposite is True?

Despite the widely accepted idea that saturated fat causes heart disease, there is a lack of evidence proving this, and quite a bit of evidence proving the opposite. For instance (from Chris Kresser):

“If you’re wondering whether saturated fat may contribute to heart disease in some way that isn’t related to cholesterol, a large meta-analysis of prospective studies involving close to 350,000 participants found no association between saturated fat and heart disease. (8) A Japanese prospective study that followed 58,000 men for an average of 14 years found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease, and an inverse association between saturated fat and stroke (i.e. those who ate more saturated fat had a lower risk of stroke). (9)”

There is also current data from populations in several areas around the world that confirms this point:

  • The Maasai Tribe in Kenya eats a diet of meat, milk and animal blood (66% saturated fat) and has virtually no heart disease.
  • The Eskimo tribes in the arctic subsist on whale meat and blubber (a diet of 75% plus saturated fat) and have very low or no rate of heart disease.
  • The Tokealu of New Zealand consume a diet of 60% saturated fat from coconuts and fish and again have virtually no heart disease.

Lest anyone think that these tribes are simple pre-disposed to heart health, studies show that when people from these tribes move to other countries and consume a westernized diet, they get heart disease in the same rates as people in these countries.

As this article points out:

  • “A meta-analysis published last year, which pooled data from 21 studies and included nearly 348,000 adults, found no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.
  • In a 1992 editorial published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. William Castelli, a former director of the Framingham Heart study, stated:“In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol. The opposite of what… Keys et al would predict…We found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.”
  • Another 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a reduction in saturated fat intake must be evaluated in the context of replacement by other macronutrients, such as carbohydrates.When you replace saturated fat with a higher carbohydrate intake, particularly refined carbohydrate, you exacerbate insulin resistance and obesity, increase triglycerides and small LDL particles, and reduce beneficial HDL cholesterol. The authors state that dietary efforts to improve your cardiovascular disease risk should primarily emphasize thelimitation of refined carbohydrate intake, and weight reduction.”

Chris Kresser sums it up well

Eating saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease.

There. That’s it. That’s really all you need to know. But if you’d like to read more about it, John Briffa and Chris Masterjohn have written articles about it here and here.”

Agree that fat isn’t the problem but think that cholesterol could be the culprit instead? Check out this article.

Reasons to Eat MORE Saturated Fat:

To avoid heart disease…

Turns out that eating saturated fat may actually be important for preventing heart disease… As Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, MD explain:

“Though you may not have heard of it on the front pages of your local newspaper, online news source, or local television or radio news program, saturated fat plays a couple of key roles in cardiovascular health. The addition of saturated fat to the diet reduces the levels of a substance called lipoprotein (a)—pronounced “lipoprotein little a” and abbreviated Lp(a)—that correlates strongly with risk for heart disease. Currently there are no medications to lower this substance and the only dietary means of lowering Lp(a) is eating saturated fat. Bet you didn’t hear that on the nightly news. Moreover, eating saturated (and other) fats also raises the level of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. Lastly, research has shown that when women diet, those eating the greatest percentage of the total fat in their diets as saturated fat lose the most weight.”

To Lose Weight…

Eating fat makes you fat? Not so much..

There are whole books dedicated to the subject (affiliate) but in short (from Mark Sisson):

“Fat doesn’t make you fat. While you can technically overeat enough fat calories to accumulate adipose tissue, thus getting fat, this is a difficult feat, for two primary reasons:

Fat is very satiating, especially when paired with low-carb eating. Grass-fed pot roast, ribbed with yellow fat, connective tissue, and ample protein is far more filling than some crusty bread spread with butter. You’ll eat a decent slice of the former and be done, but you could easily polish off half a loaf of the latter with half a stick of butter and still be hungry. It’s difficult to overeat on a high-fat, low-carb diet.

Dietary fat in the presence of large amounts of dietary carbohydrates can make it difficult to access fat for energy, while dietary fat in the presence of low levels of dietary carbohydrates makes it easier to access fat for energy. Couple that with the fact that fat and carbs are easier to overeat together, and you have your explanation. In fact, studies have shown that low-carb, high-fat diets not only reduce weight, they also retain or even increase lean mass. That means it’s fat that’s being lost (rather than the nebulous “weight”), which is what we’re ultimately after.”

For Liver Health:

According to the Drs. Eades:

“Adding saturated fat to the diet has been shown in medical research to encourage the liver cells to dump their fat content. Clearing fat from the liver is the critical first step to calling a halt to middle-body fat storage. Additionally, saturated fat has been shown to protect the liver from the toxic insults of alcohol and medications, including acetaminophen and other drugs commonly used for pain and arthritis, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, and even to reverse the damage once it has occurred. Since the liver is the lynchpin of a healthy metabolism, anything that is good for the liver is good for getting rid of fat in the middle. Polyunsaturated vegetable fats do not offer this protection.”

Healthy Brain:

The brain is made largely of fat and the majority of the fat in the brain is saturated. The Myelin Sheath that surrounds the nerves in the brain and ensures their proper function is also largely made of saturated fat and cholesterol. As such, consuming saturated fats is extremely important, especially during pregnancy and nursing as these are times of rapid brain development for babies.

For Skin Health:

From a previous article:

“At the same time that Omega-6 oil consumption has risen, consumption of saturated fats and Omega-3 fats has declined. We’ve seen how well that’s worked out for us, but it turns out that it could have a pretty big impact on skin health too.

The body needs healthy fats, including saturated fats, monounsaturated fats,  and Omega-3 fats, to regenerate skin tissue, and these fats are the preferred building blocks in the body. If the body doesn’t get these fats (and many people don’t these days), it will use whatever it has available, including Omega-6 fats, which are not the preferred fat for building skin and collagen and can cause mutation (cancer).”

Immune Health:

Saturated fats are also important for keeping the immune system functioning properly. From this post:

“Saturated fats found in butter and coconut oil (myristic acid and lauric acid) play key roles in immune health. Loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Human breast milk is quite rich in myristic and lauric acid, which have potent germ-killing ability. But the importance of the fats lives on beyond infancy; we need dietary replenishment of them throughout adulthood, middle age, and into seniority to keep the immune system vigilant against the development of cancerous cells as well as infectious invaders.”

Additional Reading:

7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat - Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades at the blog of Tim Ferriss.

What if Bad Fat is Actually Good For You? – at Men’s Health

Saturated Fat- Will I Get Fat and Die?

Four Reasons Saturated Fat is Healthy

The Seven Most Common Reactions to Your High Fat Diet

Is Saturated Fat Healthy? at MarksDailyApple.com

What if It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie? (Gary Taubes interview by Dr. Mercola):

Sources:

Keys, A. et al; 1986; The Diet and 15-year death rate in the seven countries study, inAmerican Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 124, No.6, pp.903-915
Hu, F.B et al; 1999; Dietary saturated fats and their food sources in relation to the risk of coronary heart disease in women, in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 70, pp. 1001-8
Fallon, S. and Enig, M.G; 2001; Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing, Washington, DC

Reader Comments

  1. says

    I am no longer afraid of saturated fat! I eat bacon fat, butter, coconut oil, lard all without freaking out about it and have dropped 36 pounds in 2.5 months! I always feel full and never deprived!

  2. Cheryl Seymour says

    I have no fear of saturated fat, any more. But I am horrified when I think of the couple of decades that I spent listening to self proclaimed experts who told me to stay away from fat (and protein by default) and instead eat things like processed rice cakes. Dry. There are still people out there that are following that thought process.

  3. Nat @ The Apple Diaries says

    This is such a great article. The saturated fat debate is one that comes up so often and I do find that a lot of us are misinformed and really afraid of the word ‘fat’. I think it’s so important for us to understand the difference between good fats and bad fats and in particular that our bodies need a certain level of saturated fat to stay healthy. As a Vegetarian, one of my favourite sources of saturated fat is Coconut Oil. It’s truly amazing.

    Talk soon :)

  4. says

    I think the real answer here should be moderation. Because isn’t that always the answer? A multitude of factors contribute to all health outcomes. We started eating processed grains & vegetable oil the same time we stopped exercising as much. As a scientist, I also take offense at the video saying that Keys did what ‘any good researcher would do throw out data that doesn’t fit the hypothesis.’ It’s pretty dangerous to generalize like this. And I think everyone should be wary of claims that say ‘food x is bad’ because sentiment then switches to ‘food x is good’. The answer is nearly always ‘food x is just fine in combination with everything else in moderation and along with exercise’. Let’s stop blaming or rejoicing in single components. Often it’s fad-ish and not entirely factual. Ok, sorry for the mini-rant.

  5. says

    I am not afraid of saturated fat at all, but I am wondering if there is a guideline as to how much saturated fat to consume each day? I usually eat about 150-175g fat per day all from healthy sources (meat, coconut, avocado, olive oil)

  6. roo08 says

    i can’t eat too much coconut oil or foods with saturated fat (I eat them very moderately) or else I get a deep chest pain that is different from heartburn pain and isn’t really affected by movement. This happens especially with coconut oil. I’ve had to listen to my body and back off a bit. Has anyone else had this problem?

  7. says

    Not anymore! Give a nice rich fatty chunk of pot roast and scrambled eggs fried in coconut oil and steamed cauliflower and full fat yogurt or lebni for breakfast over a wimpy bowl of cereal any day of the week! Keeps you going like you wouldn’t believe!

  8. Emma says

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks so much for your blog! I stumbled across it about 4 weeks ago and have since changed my diet to consist mainly of vegetables, fruit & good fats – I am lovin’ it! My work colleague switched to a low-fat, low calorie diet at the same time and I love the foods I get to eat over what I see her eating. I have also taken some of your home made recipes and started using them… I haven’t used commercial deodorant for 5 days and am astounded that I haven’t had unpleasant BO (except when for one time when I wore a a dress that I should have washed last week and it made me have a very faint BO smell at the end of the day, but even then I got home and wiped my under arms with my silver microfiber body cloth, and then I applied a little more homemade deodorant and then proceeded to do my work out, sweating like a pig, and I didn’t smell at all! I was amazed because usually by that point after washing with my normal body wash and spraying with my store bought deo I would’ve had a slight odour.)… anyway more to the point..

    My question is, what are your thoughts on vegan low-fat diets? I have done a lot of reading over the last 4 weeks on different websites and have really enjoyed how I’ve felt transitioning into being completely refined sugar free and grain free… but today I read a controversial raw foodist blog post about Dr Graham’s 80/10/10 raw vegan diet. Basically it consists of just eating raw fruits, a small amount of veggies and a small amount of nuts. It doesn’t make sense to me that if our bodies need saturated fats to build cells that we could only eat fruit and be healthy… or is there saturated fats in fruit (I can google that myself)?

    This particular person was saying that many of us jump into the whole “good fats are good for you” so we eat too much of them. How much fat do you and your family consume a day? I love my yoghurt so I have it almost daily with fruit, honey and nuts or LSA, but I still consume organic pasture fed meat and cheese on top of that and I also made your homemade coconut butter chocolate and it is to die for (so in a day I might consume all of the above)… am I getting maybe too much saturated fat and do I need to eat possibly more fruit and vegetables?

    Anyway, sorry for the super long comment!! :)

    • Emma says

      Oh wait, I am so silly you can eat avocado’s and coconut oil for saturated fat… anyway I am mainly just wondering when too much of a good thing is too much?

    • says

      I probably consume at least half of my calories each day from fat :-) I personally would never try or recommend a vegan diet, as it is lacking in a lot of important minerals and nutrients needed for fertility, oral health, and many other aspects of health. A completely raw diet can also be stressful for the gut, which impacts every aspect of health. Long story short, I focus on nourishing foods and don’t count calories or fat. We eat a lot of organic bone broth, cooked vegetables, fermented vegetables, healthy fats and fruits …

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