A juicy steak, whole milk and eggs…
Three foods you may have banished from your diet long ago.
All because for decades, experts have preached that saturated fat clogs our arteries and leads to heart disease.
In fact, when you hear the term “saturated fat,” you usually also hear “artery-clogging” somewhere in the same sentence. In other words, it’s a given that saturated fat clogs your arteries.
And saying anything different makes people think you need a one-way ticket straight to CRAZY TOWN.
Because the latest research has found that saturated fat may not be the arterial villain it has been made out to be.
And in fact, saturated fat may sometimes be the better choice to put on your plate.
The Fat Folktale
Saturated fat’s bad rap probably dates back to the work of American physiologist Ancel Keys, Ph.D. His landmark study helped shape our common beliefs about fat.
In his research, Keys compared fat intake and heart disease mortality in six countries: the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Italy, and Japan.
His study found that, while Americans feasted on the most fat, we also had the greatest number of deaths from heart disease. On the other end of the spectrum, the Japanese, who ate the least amount of fat, had the fewest deaths from heart disease.
And the other countries? They fell somewhere in between.
Keys called this correlation a “remarkable relationship” and began to publicly put forward the idea that consumption of fat causes heart disease. This became known as the diet-heart hypothesis.
Since then, our notion of saturated fat = bad has been validated by all the major nutrition dioceses. Today, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10 percent of calories each day from saturated fat.
The American Heart Association, the Natural Cholesterol Education Program and other authoritative sources go even further, recommending that adults consume less than 7 to 10 percent of calories from saturated fats.
And yet, today cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer of Americans.
Surprising New Data
The answer may be found in a remarkable 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers pooled data from 21 studies and included nearly 350,000 adults. The results showed no significant evidence to conclude that saturated fat causes an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Before that, the Women’s Health Initiative study found that eating less saturated fat didn’t result in lower rates of heart disease or stroke.
More recently, researchers from the University of Vienna report that the effect of diets high in total fat, including saturated fats, on blood lipids in overweight people is open to interpretation. This 2013 meta-analysis included 32 published clinical studies comparing low-fat and high-fat diets.
They found that the low-fat diets were better at reducing LDL-cholesterol, equating to about a 2 percent reduction in risk of heart disease. But the high-fat diets were better able to boost HDL-cholesterol (the good cholesterol)… equating to about a 7 percent reduction in risk AND they helped keep blood triglycerides in check.
Saturated Fat: From Vilified to Vindicated?
So maybe saturated fat isn’t the problem. Processed meats are loaded with sodium, which increases blood pressure and risk of stroke. Low-fat hot dogs and processed deli turkey have less saturated fat than a steak, for example, but also contain, on average, up to four times as much sodium per gram.
It may also have something to do with the alternatives. Historically, when we’ve cut back on saturated fat we’ve replaced it with something worse: refined carbohydrates.
Foods like white bread, white rice, potatoes, sugary drinks, and the like get digested very quickly, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to spike. Over time, eating these carbs can raise the risk of heart disease as much as, or even more than eating too much saturated fat.
And swapping beef for a bagel ups your triglycerides and lowers your HDL—two risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
One major fact that experts have ignored is that there are several kinds of saturated fat commonly found in foods, and they’re not all created equal.
There’s also palmitic (found in palm oil, butter, and eggs) and myristic acids (found in cheese, milk, butter, and beef) that appear to increase inflammation and LDL cholesterol, but they may also raise HDL in the process, which would help cancel out the negative.
Finally, there’s stearic acid (found in chocolate and beef), which has no negative effect on blood cholesterol. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee stated in its scientific report that stearic acid should not be considered a “cholesterol-raising” saturated fat. This fat is the reason most experts say dark chocolate is okay.
So what does that mean for you (and me)?
When it comes to heart health, saturated fat intake may not be as criminal as it’s been made out to be. That being said, while I’m not quite ready to start ordering a double burger with a side of steak, I do think this new research is fascinating. I will keep tabs on what’s going on in the scientific world and keep you up to date.
In the meantime, I’m still not suggesting you pile the pastrami on rye on your plate. Processed meats are loaded with sodium, nitrites and often added corn syrup and other sugars which make them poor choices for reasons other than saturated fat.
Instead, if you want to add some saturated fat back into your diet, do so in moderation. Make your meat choices grass-fed beef and poultry, which have a healthier nutrition profile. Eat more nuts and seeds, or try coconut oil as a cholesterol-free alternative to sauté veggies or roast sweet potatoes. And reach for dark chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth.
What do you think of the research? Will it change the way you eat? Tell me about it. I’d love to hear what you think.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
I have dedicated my life to answering these questions... And I share this knowledge with you every day here at RealDose Nutrition.
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1. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(3):535-546. PMID: 20071648.
2. Howard BV, Van Horn L, Hsia J, et al. Low-fat dietary pattern and risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women’s Health Initiative randomized controlled dietary modification trial. JAMA. 2006;295(6):655-666. PMID: 16467234.
3. Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Comparison of effects of long-term low-fat vs high-fat diets on blood lipid levels in overweight or obese patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013;113(12):1640-1661. PMID: 24139973.