Is saturated fat bad for you?
Plenty of experts say yes, yet some traditional societies seem to have none of the chronic health issues that Americans do. Why is that? Our health writer explores the studies and tackles this controversial issue.
Tue, May 22, 2012 at 12:38 PM
Are saturated fats bad for you? Many doctors, nutritionists, weight-loss coaches, pharmaceutical companies, TV commercials and government sources say that saturated fats lead to chronic disease and early death.
But Eskimos eat whale blubber along with a diet comprised of 75 percent saturated fat. The Maasai in Kenya eat beef, drink cattle blood and lots of milk; in fact, two-thirds of this tribe’s traditional diet comes from saturated fat. Neither Inuit Eskimos nor the Maasai have developed heart disease or any other chronic health problems — as long as they don’t start eating Western-style junk food.
Yet, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommend that the average U.S. adult consume no more than 10 percent of total calories in the form of saturated fat.
That amounts to, on average, 20 grams per day.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends even less saturated fat: a total of 7 percent of total calories. (Don’t think the AHA is serious about cutting out saturated fat? Check out its animated feature on their website.)
Why do some experts say ‘saturated fat is bad’ if other societies thrive on it?
In the late 1950s, the University of Minnesota’s Ancel Keys and other researchers conducted the so-called ‘Seven Countries’ study, which concluded that high levels of saturated fatty acids predicted higher rates of coronary heart disease.
A half-century later, Keys’ study has left an indelible impression on modern medicine.
Critics of the study, including Dr. Neil W. Hirschenbein of the La Jolla Institute of Comprehensive Medicine, allege that Keys’ study ignored data from 20 other countries that showed no correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
“There is politics in everything, including medicine. When you’ve been teaching something for over 50 years, it’s hard to go back and say you’ve made a mistake,” Hirschenbein tells Mother Nature Network.
Hirschenbein adds, “A lot of the studies that came out linking saturated fat to heart disease don’t control for the quality of saturated fat or important lifestyle factors. There is no distinction in the studies, for example, between very healthy, 100-percent grass-fed beef versus meat that is raised in ways we shouldn't be eating that make the cows as fat as possible as quickly as possible, force-feeding them grains, and pumping the U.S. population with way too many inflammatory-inducing omega-6 fatty acids (which is an unsaturated fat).”
Are there any medical studies that prove saturated fat doesn’t lead to heart disease?
An editorial, titled, “Saturated fat prevents coronary artery disease? An American paradox,” published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concludes: “… a high-fat, high–saturated fat diet is associated with diminished coronary artery disease progression in women with the metabolic syndrome.”
One study of 347,747 subjects, also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded, “Intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of CHD (coronary heart disease), stroke, or cardiovascular disease (CVD).”
“The science that saturated fat alone causes heart disease is non-existent,” says Hirschenbein.
What about LDLs, the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol. Doesn’t saturated fat raise LDL levels?
Yes, but Demetra Vagias, M.D., and a practicing naturopathic doctor, believes this is a good thing.
“HDL brings cholesterol back to the liver for recycling; LDL brings cholesterol back to the circulation for repairing tissues, so if LDL is up temporary in one of my patients, I tell them that they are in a healing mode,” says Vagias, who counsels her patients to eat a diet rich in saturated fat, especially raw dairy sources.
What are the benefits of saturated fats?
Among other benefits, saturated fats play a vital role in:
forming cell membrane walls
initiating the building blocks of hormones
carrying fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K)
converting carotene to vitamin A
absorbing trace minerals
Should I go on an all-bacon-cheeseburger diet if saturated fats are not bad?
Not quite. But meat, dairy product and fat-lovers in general can take solace in a study of about 100,000 female nurses that observed no association between meat, dairy products, cholesterol, or fat intakes and the risk of pancreatic cancer, though the study does note that cooking methods and processed meats may be a contributor to pancreatic cancer.
Even Harvard’s School of Public Health now acknowledges that saturated fat isn’t as evil as other sources claim it is. But the school does recommend “…cut[ting] back on red meat and dairy products, [and] replac[ing] them with foods that contain healthy fats — fatty fish like salmon, nuts and seeds, plant oils, avocadoes — not with foods that are high in refined carbohydrates.”
What do you think about saturated fats? Are they healthy or harmful? Let us know below.
Judd Handler is a health writer based in Encinitas, Calif.