Is Saturated Fat Bad For You? Maybe Not As Much As Previously Thought


Is Saturated Fat Bad For You? Maybe Not As Much As Previously Thought

22, December 2014 4:08 PM

Saturated Fat is Bad for You: A Pervasive—Yet Not Wholly Accurate—Perspective

Not to date myself, but my interest in nutrition emerged in the 70s, piqued in the 80s and matured in the 90s … the three decades when fat, particularly saturated fat, was considered the worst thing that could pass your lips. Not only would it deposit directly on your hips and thighs, causing almost overnight obesity, but it would practically lodge in your heart and lead to a sudden heart attack, quietly and with no warning. 

eggs and cheese are back on the breakfast menu with new saturated fat research As a result, we eschewed butter, cream, whole milk, eggs and gravy and minimized our intakes of saturated fat-laden meats and cheeses. A generation of foods was developed and marketed that were low-fat or non-fat. We happily ate crackers and chips that were ‘baked not fried’ (and tasted like cardboard). We substituted margarine for butter and made chocolate chip cookies with applesauce or other fruit-based concoctions.

In my training as a dietitian, this paradigm was further reinforced. Patients with, or at risk of, heart disease (pretty much everyone) were steered away from saturated fats. Dieters were put on low-fat diets to save the 9-calories-per-gram that fats provided. Even cancer was associated with fats … and who wasn’t afraid of cancer? There was hardly anyone, except perhaps elite athletes, who shouldn’t be on a low-fat diet. Doctors, nurses, health educators … everyone in the health field agreed that saturated fats were bad for you. A look into the history of nutritional science sheds some light on how this myth was born and propagated into national guidelines.

The low-fat recommendations were based largely on a single scientist’s study, called the Seven Countries Study, which took place back in the 1950s. The scientist, Ancel Keys, looked at diet and heart disease data from seven countries, concluding that heart disease was directly linked to blood cholesterol levels, which were in turn linked to saturated fat intakes. Keys was so passionate about this relationship, and the data seemed so strong, that no one questioned him. 

He presented at national conferences. His ideas spread and powerful institutions, including the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health, adopted them. Research dollars were made available to further his theory. Time magazine, the most influential magazine at the time, featured his story. During the 1950s and 60s the U.S. was immersed in a national epidemic of heart attacks and strokes, and people were hungry for ways to prevent these horrible fates. President Eisenhower had a series of heart attacks, eventually dying of heart disease in 1969. All in all, we were ripe for a solution and Keys provided it.

Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: A New Perspective

The past few years have uncovered serious flaws in Keys’ study design, and newer research has shown that this saturated fat- blood cholesterol- heart disease relationship is too simplistic:

  • Keys hand-picked the seven countries in his study. When other countries are included, the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease diminishes, if not disappears altogether. In fact, Keys has been accused of choosing only those nations that confirmed his hypothesis.
  • His was an epidemiological study—at best, it only showed an association. This would be like saying, ever since I bought a red car, I’ve gotten in a lot of accidents, thus the red car must be causing the accidents. True clinical studies that prove cause and effect are needed upon which to base recommendations.
  • We now know there are various types of cholesterol—such as HDL (healthy) and LDL (unhealthy), and subtypes of each—that have different effects on heart disease. Keys lumped all of these together to draw his conclusions.
  • Just like cholesterol, we now know there are different types of fat and saturated fat, all with different effects on blood cholesterol. Some types of saturated fat, such as those found in dairy foods, are neutral or even beneficial to heart disease risk. Again, Keys lumped all these saturated fats together.

Newer research is showing that saturated fat is not, in fact, linked to heart disease as once believed. A recent review that combined the results from 72 studies confirmed this, calling into question the recommendations to reduce intake of saturated fats. The June 2014 feature article of Time magazine was titled “Eat Butter: Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.” Best-selling books are flying off the shelf, including one I recently read called “The Big Fat Surprise: Why butter, meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet” that summarizes the changing paradigm on saturated fats.

enjoy cheese in moderation again

So… Is Saturated Fat Good or Bad?

This puts us in a conundrum in nutrition, where the recommendations do not align with the new research.  Many people, health professionals included, are embedded in their old paradigms, but this new evidence suggests that it’s time to re-think these edicts. The bottom line is that saturated fat is not the demon once believed. Foods that were once avoided—like butter, eggs and whole milk—can be incorporated into healthy diets. Eating smaller quantities of highly satisfying food may be just what we need!

At the same time, this doesn't give us liberty to eat one-pound hamburgers and bacon every day. Calories still count and body weight, physical activity and dietary patterns are more important than any specific food component. 

Before making any drastic changes to your diet, check with a dietitian or medical doctor to make sure it’s on track with your individual needs. And, don’t hesitate to share what you now know about the saturated fat topic!


Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D.N. 

Tags: healthy dietary patterns Healthy eating heart disease nutrition research saturated fat

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