We all know that saturated fat is bad for us. We have been hearing the horror stories for years now. The problem is that the latest research may actually turn that view on its head.
In what follows we examine saturated fat in detail and see if it is a friend or foe.
What Is Saturated Fat?
Fats are important nutrients that our bodies need to function. They are part of a subgroup of nutrients called macronutrients that are essential for energy production and are needed in big quantities.
Every molecule of fat has three separate fatty acids and a single molecule of glycerol. The fatty acid parts may be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. How are these fat types distinguished? Is has to do with the number of double bonds in the fatty acid section of the molecule. If a fat does not have double bonds it is saturated. If it has one double bond it is monounsaturated. If it has more than one, it is polyunsaturated.
The truth is that every fat has a bit of each type of fatty acid there are no strictly saturated fats or strictly polyunsaturated fats. And all fats pack 9 calories in every gram.
Saturated fats can usually be distinguished because they take a solid form at room temperature (think butter, for example). The others (think olive oil, for example) are usually liquid at the same temperature.
Saturated fats are available in good quantities in meat that is fatty, pork fat, coconuts and full-cream dairy to name a few sources. Red meats have quite a good deal of the good fats as well.
What it boils down to: Fats that have no double bonds and that solidify at room temperature are saturated.
Why The Bad Rep?
In the last century, heart disease was rife in the USA. Initially a disease that was fairly rare, an epidemic seemed to break out and it became the leading cause of death as it is today. Studies then revealed that ingesting saturated fat raised the cholesterol levels in your blood. For scientists back then, this was breakthrough research. They knew there was a correlation between high levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
They thus assumed the following:
Because cholesterol levels are raised by the consumption of saturated fat, and because they knew that high cholesterol leads to cardiovascular issues, they assumed that saturated fat consequently caused cardiovascular problems. This assumption, however, was never tested in practice in human studies.
This so-called diet-heart hypothesis was accepted by mainstream medicine in the seventies without any actual direct evidence that it was correct. Even to this day, this is still a commonly held belief despite evidence that the entire theory was incorrect.
What it boils down to: The common assumption was that saturated fats cause cardiovascular disease because they increase the blood levels of cholesterol. But this has always been an assumption, not a scientifically proven fact.
Saturated Fat Increases Both Good And Bad Cholesterol
The term cholesterol is often used improperly. What we refer to as cholesterol is actually lipoproteins that transport the cholesterol. We have Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) and High Density Lipoprotein (HDL). Cholesterol is all the same, it is the carriers that differ.
Initially, no distinction was made between the two types and researchers simply measured overall cholesterol . Then, scientific advances proved that HDL reduces the risk of cholesterol while LDL increases it. Not differentiating between the two made the figures look a lot worse than they actually were cholesterol was a misleading gauge because you could have lots of (good) HDL in your total cholesterol count and actually have reduced health risks.
Because this differentiation was not made till later, it seemed right to presume that saturated fat was bad (since it raised overall cholesterol). But what wasn t being noticed (or reported, at least) was that HDL is also increased by saturated fat.
And now, again, we need to look deeper into the issue based on more recent findings. There are actually sub-groupings of LDL:
Small Dense LDL: This type of lipoprotein is tiny enough to pass through the walls of arteries easily, a phenomenon that can provoke cardiac disease. In addition, these smaller particles are a lot more likely to be subject to oxidization “ another step towards developing cardiac disease.
Large LDL: This type of lipoprotein is bigger and cannot easily pass through artery walls.
People who have the former type are three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease as those with the latter type. So if you want to minimize your risk, you want to maximize presence of the larger particles as much as you can.
One inconvenient finding (generally overlooked by conventional wisdom the consumption of saturated is correlated with an increase in the of Large LDL; and inversely correlated with the proportion of Small Dense LDL.
The implication is an important one: While the overall level of LDLs are slightly increased by saturated fats, the particles themselves are transformed into a harmless type and this lowers the risk factor.
When all is said and done, even the purported increase in LDL from saturated fat is less marked than you might think. The effects are all short-term; long-term studies have not found a correlation between eating saturated fat and increased LDL.
Another factor that comes into play is how long the fatty acid chain is. Those with shorter chains may elevate levels of LDL, while those with longer chains do not.
Scientists have also now established that it is a lot more complex than just the proportion of LDL a recent development in the process involved in measuring LDL that measures the actual number of LDL particles in the the blood (the LDL-P count) may be a more accurate predictor of cardiovascular issues. Carb restricted diets that usually have quite a high percentage of saturated fat have been found to actually reduce LDL-P. Conversely, diets low in fat have been shown to have the opposite effect.
What it boils down to: Saturated fats elevate the levels of HDL (the good stuff) in the blood stream and convert the dense, small LDL (the bad stuff) to a harmless form. In general they are also no longer believed to be damaging when it comes to blood lipids.
Causal Link Between Saturated Fat And Cardiovascular Disease?
Much contemporary dietary advice is based on the fact that saturated fat is harmful. And a lot of effort has gone into trying to prove this link scientifically. Despite this and years and years worth of studies, no causal link has ever been proven. Conversely, macro reviews of multiple studies show that there is no causal link. Saturated fat is off the hook when it comes to heart disease.
For example, a comprehensive review that encompassed 21 studies and close to 350,000 subjects concluded that this missing causal link between saturated fat and heart issues is exactly that. Missing. It doesn't exist. An even more recent review gathered evidence from a staggering 76 different studies - the total sample size was close to 650,000 people. Again, no link was established.
The Cochrane collaboration in which data was combined from a number of controlled studies showed that in terms of the overall rate of death, as well as the rate of death from heart disease, there is no benefit from reducing your intake of saturated fat. What they did find, however, is that by switching saturated fats for unsaturated ones, you raised the chances of contracting cardiac disease by almost 15%. This doesn't signify that saturated fats are the big baddies that everyone thought, it only shows that saturated fats are, to a large degree, neutral while there are some benefits to including unsaturated fats high in Omega-3. You can find supplementing with omega-3 supplements to be a great way to include this fat into your diet.
The winds of change in this field do tend to blow very slowly however, so there is not likely to be much of a change in conventional wisdom soon.
What it boils down to: Despite mountains of research, there is no evidence that there is a causal link when it comes to heart disease and saturated fats.
Are There Health Benefits To A Low Saturated-Fat Diet?
The low-fat diet has been the diet of choice of most healthcare professionals and health groups.
Proponents of this diet aim for the reduction of cholesterol and saturated fat in the diet. In addition, they advise eating more veggies, whole grains and fruit while cutting back on sugar.
The biggest nutritional study ever the "Women's Health Initiative" randomly assigned some of the 47,000 women who participated a diet low in fat. After an 8 year period, the average weight difference between the women eating low fat and those who weren't was about a pound. There was no variation in the incidences of cardiovascular disease, fatalities or cancer.
There have been other huge studies that back this finding up.
In some studies, the effect of substituting polyunsaturated veg-based oils for saturated fats showed an increased incidence of death within those in the polyunsaturated group. It is also enlightening - and sobering - to see that the obesity crisis started to balloon when the low fat protocol came out. This is, of course only a correlation, not a direct proof of causation. But interesting nonetheless.
What also gives one pause is that in just about every study that centered on comparing how a reduced fat diet performed in relation to other well known diets, it lost out.
What it boils down to: Reduced fat diets are increasingly being proven to be of no benefit and possibly even harmful to good health.
There Are Some Cases Where It Is Prudent To Cut Back On Saturated Fat
Any study is based on the aggregate outcome. What that means is that, for most people, the risk of contracting heart disease does not increase when saturated fats are ingested on average. There are always the exception to the rule.
Because of this, there are going to be individuals who need to reduce the amount of saturated fat that they ingest. Those people, for example, who have Familial Hypercholesterolemia and those who have ApoE4 (a gene variation) need to be careful.
In the future, science will no doubt be able to more accurately diagnose each person s own chances of contracting a disease based on diet choices.
What it boils down to: If you have the ApoE4 gene, or have Familial Hypercholesterolemia, saturated fats are not for you.
Benefits Of Saturated Fat
The benefits of saturated fats are seldom put forward. Did you know, for instance, that they are a good choice when it comes cooking? Because of the lack of double bonds within them, they resist damage from heat. This is completely different to polyunsaturated fats, which are prone to oxidation under heat.
This is why you should be looking at frying foods using butter, coconut oil or lard, especially when high temperatures are necessary.
Foods that have high saturated fat levels are also high in nutrients when left unprocessed and of good quality. Ideally you want meat or dairy that comes from cattle that are grass-fed and naturally raised. Supplement with coconuts and dark chocolate.
What it boils down to: When it comes to cooking, saturated fats take a beating and perform. Unprocessed foods that have high levels of saturated fat are healthy.
The Real Villains When It Comes To Fats
Fats come in many varieties, some good, some bad and some neutral. I has been demonstrated that both monounsaturated and saturated fats are far from being dangerous; they may actually even be good for us.
Polyunsaturated fats sometimes come out as the villain it depends on what levels of Omega-3 or Omega-6 they contain. The body needs both but in the right proportion. It is a lot easier to get the Omega-6s so most of us eat too many of them.
You should really up your intake of Omega-3s (as from oily fish for example) but you can help your health by reducing the amount of Omega-6 in your diet. For this reason, it is time to cut out veg-based oils and seed based oils. Canola oil is NOT good for you. Watch out for the foods that contain them as well.
The real villains are trans fats made by chemically altering veg oils and subjecting them to high temperatures, a catalyst and hydrogen. Excessive consumption of trans fats have been shown to cause cardiac disease.
Stick to the good fats Omega-3s, monounsaturated, saturated and give the trans fats and veg-based oils the boot.
In terms of targeting fat cells already in your body, try garcinia cambogia, which may burn fat and curb hunger.
What it boils down to: The real villains are the trans fats and oils that have high levels of Omega-6.
They Will Have To Find A New Scapegoat
Despite the time and energy devoted to proving that saturated fat causes cardiovascular disease, no link has been found. This hypothesis was always incorrect and will never be proven otherwise. Scientific evidence proves that it is wrong.
A simple thought experiment may also help: The human race has been subsisting on a diet high in saturated fat since time began. We only showed sign of serious heart disease a mere century ago it is clearly not the fats.