Saturated fats and the role they play in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have been in the news lately from The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz to the June 12, 2014 Times Magazine article, “Ending the War on Fat”. Both Teicholtz’s book and the Times’ front cover- worthy article and other publications feel the American public has been duped into believing that saturated fats clog arteries and create heart disease.
It’s been 53 years since Anzel Keys, the founding father of the low fat diet, was on the front cover of Time Magazine vilifying saturated fats and changing our mindset to one of hate for cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol; LDL collects in the walls of blood vessels, causing the blockages of atherosclerosis) and possibly setting the stage for our current love/reliance on statin drugs.
An increasing number of studies are surfacing despite the decades’ long backlash against what was considered indelible information. The studies suggest that there may not be a correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. The most recent and visible research* published in March 2014 in the Annals of Internal Medicine involved 76 studies with over 650,000 participants and concluded that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
A meta-analysis published in 2010** already concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD”. This analysis consisted of 21 studies involving 350,000 people following their diets from 6 to 23 years.
What else is science showing us about saturated fats?
- They help to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol, improving your triglyceride/HDL ratio—a key marker of cardiovascular health.
- Food high in saturated fats also helps to change your LDL cholesterol pattern, from small dense particles that can clog your arteries to large “fluffy” harmless LDL particles.
- They reduce the levels of a substance called lipoprotein (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.
- Saturated fat is required for calcium to be effectively incorporated into your bones; i.e.; stronger bones.
- Your brain is mainly made of fat and cholesterol. Though many people are now familiar with the importance of the highly unsaturated essential fatty acids found in cold-water fish (EPA and DHA) for normal brain and nerve function, the lion’s share of the fatty acids in the brain are actually saturated. A diet that skimps on healthy saturated fats robs your brain of the raw materials it needs to function optimally (keep an eye out on the recent interest in the role of fats and Alzheimer’s disease).
What foods are high in saturated fats? Beef, pork, lamb, and poultry with skin, cream, butter, cheese, eggs, whole milk, dark chocolate, some nuts, palm and coconut oil; a list of foods that many of us have been actively avoiding, either under the direction of a physician or out of an I-thought-this-is-good-for-me belief. It is also a list of foods we love!
The science backs that saturated fats should have some kind of a role in our daily diets and we do not need to drastically reduce or eliminate saturated fat in order to lose weight or prevent heart disease( with evidence actually pointing to the contrary). We do need to eat better quality food, consume correct portions at meals, and still make vegetables and fruit the main focus.
Consuming foods high in saturated fats that are found in the fast food industry, packaged foods, and high heat oxidized fats (deep fry, etc.) from less than healthy animals will have quality compromised and will cause inflammation in the body. Rather, consume your saturated fat sources from clean, organic, free-range sources to reap the benefits detailed above.
The takeaway from all this data is to breathe a sigh of relief that you can have a grass fed burger pan fried in coconut oil with a slice of raw or organic cheddar cheese (maybe not with a highly processed wheat roll rather try it over a mix of field greens and a medley of fresh raw vegetables or caramelized onion and drizzled with olive oil and vinegar) and follow it up with an ounce of 70% or higher dark chocolate.
Don’t be an extremist and think you have carte-blanche to just eat saturated fats, rather be an advocate of REAL FOOD (start with perusing The Whole Meal’s library of whole foods based recipes) whether it be grass fed meat, organic and raw cheese and butter, healthy carbohydrates like root vegetables, steamed rice, or quinoa. And consume less of what is really the culprit of the diseases that plague modern America- sugary foods and drinks, highly processed carbohydrates, refined flours and oils.
I’ll save that topic for another day.
*Here is link to the March 2014 research abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24723079
**Here is link to the 2010 meta-analysis abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648