Is Saturated Fat Good for You?

Written by Alex Reid
Posted January 18, 2013

WARNING: The following information may change everything you think you know about saturated fat and cholesterol. The so-called “fact” that a diet high in saturated fat will lead to heart disease and other health risks is so widely regarded, that even studies proving the opposite are not readily accepted by scientists. But before you write this off as a new diet fad, let's take a look at where this myth came from and why it's so hard to shake.

The History of the Diet-Heart Hypothesis

The idea that saturated fat contributes to heart disease was first theorized in 1953 by Dr. Ancel Keys, a physiologist, and came as an answer to the alarming rise of deaths due to heart disease that were happening in the U.S. at the time. Keys hypothesized that fat consumption causes heart disease based on an analysis of fat consumption and instances of fatal heart disease in six countries: The U.S., Canada, Australia, England, Italy, and Japan. He found that the U.S. had the most deaths from heart disease as well as the most fat consumption, while Japan had the fewest deaths from heart disease and the least fat consumption. Thus, conclusions were drawn, assumptions made, and a paper was published titled “Atherosclerosis, a Problem in Newer Public Health.” The public's understanding of fat consumption was forever changed.

Keys called the correlation between heart disease and fat consumption a “remarkable relationship” and went on to be highly revered and respected in the medical community. Keys went on to promote his theory on the cover of Time magazine as was quoted as saying “people should know the facts.” He went on to conduct another data-based study in 1970 which collected data from seven countries and concluded that animal fats raise cholesterol and lead to heart disease. The findings were so compelling that the American Heart Association began to promote the idea, and in 1977 Congress made it government policy to recommend a low-fat diet as a means to prevent heart disease.

However, there are some glaring pieces of evidence missing from these findings which have often gone unacknowledged by members of the health and science communities...

Flawed Studies

The greatest flaw in Keys' first study was that he only examined six countries, while there was available data for 22 countries. When the instances of fatal heart disease and fat consumption of the remaining countries was examined, the link between the factors became obsolete and did not account for much of the data. The connection between the two factors has no clear causative link, only speculative assumption, and the correlation was not seen at all in several countries studied.

Since Keys' initial findings, there have been several studies which show conflicting evidence. The largest and most expensive of these was the Women's Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial, conducted over eight years on more than 20,000 women. The study tracked the cholesterol levels and instances of heart disease in individuals whose diets were adjusted to be low in fat and high in vegetables, fruits and grains. This study concluded that a low-fat diet did not significantly reduce the risk of high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, or stroke. But instead of making these results public, even these authors cite other previous flawed studies that confuse the matter even further.

The bottom line is: Keys' original studies are inconclusive and there is no proven causative link between a diet high in saturated fat and the occurrence of heart disease. In fact, several studies have shown that participants eating a low-carb diet, higher in saturated fats were less likely to have increased cholesterol or risk of heart disease than those eating a diet high in carbohydrates. The leading author on one such study, Dr. Jeff Volek, notes that portion size is also a factor. “If you consistently consume more calories than you burn, and you gain weight, your risk of heart disease will increase,” says Volek, “whether you favor eating saturated fats, carbs, or both.”

A New Take on Fat

Emerging evidence like the studies mentioned above continues to point to the counterintuitive notion that eating fats (saturated or unsaturated) instead of carbs can actually lower your risk of heart disease. In a study by Dr. Ronald Krauss, findings showed that “the majority of healthy people seem to derive very little benefit from these low-fat diets, in terms of heart-disease risk factors, unless they also lose weight and exercise. And if a low-fat diet is also loaded with carbs, it can actually result in adverse changes in blood lipids.” Though these results are not widely spread, they are beginning to gain credence in the medical and general population.

So while you might not feel great about throwing away your oatmeal in place of steak and eggs just yet, the key is to remember that, in Dr. Volek's own words, “there's no scientific reason that natural foods containing saturated fat can't, or shouldn't, be part of a healthy diet.”

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