Dietary saturated fat has been wrongfully maligned through decades of misinformation. Eating foods high in saturated fat can actually be helpful in creating vital health.
It doesn’t clog up your arteries, it doesn’t make you fat, and it’s better for you than many of the fats and oils being marketed as “healthy.”
Adopted as truth in 1977 despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it, the Diet/Heart Hypothesis is at the root of this misinformation. (1)
Recommendations for following a low-fat diet to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, as well as controlling weight, have been based on a false theory.
Saturated fat like what’s found in bacon, butter, beef and coconut is a macronutrient. We eat macronutrients to provide energy and fuel, while vitamins and minerals within food sources are micronutrients.
Fats can be a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are usually classified by the predominant content. Olive oil, for example, is a monounsaturated fatty acid with a well-earned reputation as a “good” fat.
We’ve been told to limit saturated fat because it was believed to raise cholesterol levels, which is a known risk for developing heart disease, the number one cause of death worldwide. (2)
The conclusion that saturated fat was the villain came from a flawed premise that looks like this:
- Saturated fat increases cholesterol (X causes Y)
- High cholesterol leads to heart disease (Y causes Z)
- Saturated fat causes heart disease (X causes Z)
The entire campaign to decrease or avoid foods high in saturated fats for better human health was based on animal experiments, observational studies, and assumptions, rather than scientific evidence. (3)
And it’s wrong.
Thoroughly debunking the long-standing myth is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll take a streamlined look here at the documented facts on how saturated fat affects health so you can update your perspective on this vital topic.
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Lipoproteins transport cholesterol throughout the body via the circulatory system, along with fat-soluble vitamins, fats, and phospholipids. When we get lipid profiles after a blood draw, the data indicates levels of these substances in the blood.
It’s a complicated relationship between heart disease and cholesterol; sub-types of cholesterol have different effects on the body, and the kind of fat ingested determines the ratio of these sub-types.
- High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is referred to as “good cholesterol.” Adequate levels of HDL reduce the risk of heart disease. (9, 10, 11)
- Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) is called “bad cholesterol.” High levels of LDL jack up the risk of heart disease. (12, 13)
- LDL particles are further categorized by size. The more tiny, dense LDL particles you have, the greater the risk of heart disease. (14, 15, 16) These are susceptible to oxidization and can become lodged in artery walls. (17, 18)
Dietary saturated fats cause LDL particles to shift into HDL particles. (19, 20) They also increase HDL levels. (21, 22) Both these effects would essentially lower the risk of developing heart disease.
Low-fat diets shrink down LDL particles and sometimes reduce HDL levels. (23, 24, 25, 26, 27) The most effective way to raise blood triglycerides and HDL cholesterol measurements, both of which are conditions associated with metabolic syndrome, is to eat a lot of carbohydrates. (28, 29)
Reviews of evidence gathered from an array of trials and studies conclude there’s absolutely no association between eating foods high in saturated fats and an increased risk of developing heart disease. (30, 31)
More Reasons to Consume Foods High in Saturated Fats
Saturated fat in the diet may also help reduce the risk of suffering a stroke, which is an interruption in blood flow to the brain due to bleeding or blockage.
More than 6 million people died from strokes in 2008, with heart disease mortality topping out at just over 7 million. (32)
Many foods rich in saturated fats provide high-quality nutrition and deliver an impressive assortment of micronutrients. High-fat dairy products, eggs, organ meats and grass-fed beef are good examples. Animals eating a natural diet yield the most nutrients.
Including saturated fat in the diet may also help you lose weight.
People following diets rich in saturated fats and low in carbohydrates are more likely to lose weight and keep it off than people following low-fat diets, and every important health biomarker improves with more saturated fat. (40, 41, 42)
It doesn’t make sense to blame the modern heart disease epidemic on foods people have been eating for thousands of years.
Members of the African Masai tribe drink large quantities of fatty milk, and have low cholesterol as well as a complete absence of heart disease. (43)
Tokelauans living on Polynesian atolls consume more coconuts loaded with saturated fat than you can probably imagine, enjoying the same good health as the Masai. (44)
Saturated fats are a much better choice for cooking than highly processed vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as soybean and corn oil, which have been linked to higher rates of heart disease. (45, 46, 47)
Because they have no double bonds, saturated fats are stable at high heats, resisting changes in molecular structure that can damage body on multiple levels. (48) Heat causes polyunsaturated fats to oxidize easily, making these a chancier choice in the kitchen. (49)
While people with genetic disorders such as Familial Hypercholesterolemia, or those who have the gene variant labeled ApoE4, will need to limit saturated fat in the diet (50), there’s no evidence that eating foods high in saturated fat is harmful for most of us.
Summary: The misinformation about dietary saturated fat has been displaced by evidence-based research showing foods we’ve been told to avoid can provide a range of benefits in building and maintaining healthy bodies.