No nutrient has been more vilified or voraciously attacked over the past half-century than saturated fat. Going back to the 1950s, when heart attack rates dramatically increased government and medical authorities rallied to uncover a “smoking gun” cause of heart attacks, and thus the “Diet-Heart Hypothesis” by Dr. Ancel Keys was born. The experts determined, that saturated fats – high in cholesterol - were the cause of heart disease. This “hypothesis”
was not uniformly accepted. Many scientists at the time were strongly outspoken against the Diet-Heart Hypothesis, citing evidence that directly contradicted the theory and highlighting the fact it was based solely on epidemiological studies, which can only prove association and not causation. Nevertheless, politicians and health authorities ran with the “Diet-Heart Hypothesis” and it became the foundation from which the next 60 years of nutritional advice would be based.
Unfortunately, the dramatic and sweeping changes to the average American diet – which were not evidence-based – came at high cost and didn’t hold up over time. Your fear of saturated fat, while deeply-ingrained, is not substantiated. Here is a closer look at five key reasons why you should eat saturated fats.
1) Saturated Fats Do Not Harm Your Heart
Cholesterol is essential for life. It’s produced overwhelmingly by your body – approximately 70% of your total levels – as an integral part of cellular membranes and communication and as a building block for hormones. In 2014, a ground-breaking study show that increasing dietary saturated fat intake had no effect on “dangerous” plasma saturated fats, however they did find ramping up carbohydrate intake increased plasma saturated fats in a “dose-dependent” manner.(MB) In short, if you are overweight or in poor health, eating too many carbs, processed carbs and sugar was the major driver of heart disease risk. All the research today agrees, there is no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.(1)
2) Saturated Fats Increase HDL Cholesterol
High-density lipoproteins, commonly known as “good” HDL cholesterol, are not cholesterol at all but rather a “water-taxis” that ferry cholesterol away from your arteries toward your liver where it can be reused or excreted. High HDL levels, particularly as a ratio with triglycerides, are strongly associated with lowering risk of death due to heart disease.(2) Eating saturated fat raises your HDL levels, thereby providing you protection from CVD and not exposing you to risk.
3) Saturated Fats Increase “Big, Fluffy” LDL
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are also “water-taxis” ferrying cholesterol away from your liver and toward your arteries (in the opposite direction to HDL). LDL is considered the “bad” type of cholesterol, however this is an over-simplification of the whole story. Small, dense LDL particle counts (think of golf balls) are a reliable predictors of heart disease risk, however they aren’t the only type of LDL calculated in your blood lab tests.(3) Big, fluffy LDL (think tennis balls) is not associated with worsening your CVD risk and this is the subtype that increases with increased consumption of dietary saturated fat.(4,5) The trouble is, you don’t pick this up on standard lab tests. In short, the rise in LDL you see from eating more saturated fat doesn’t worsen your heart (or overall) health.
4) Saturated Fats Are Great For Cooking
Oxidation is the process that occurs when unstable fats, typically polyunsaturated, are heated at high temperatures. Saturated fats contain no double bonds, making them incredibly stable at high temperatures and therefore ideal for cooking. Butter, beef tallow, lard have all been used for centuries as a staple in cooking. After the war on saturated fats started in the 1960s, saturated fats were replaced with polyunsaturated omega-6 fats, thought to be better for your health because they lowered your total cholesterol levels. While this is indeed true, they’re also highly unstable and oxidize quickly, a major reason they’ve been shown to worsen heart disease risk and even cause cancer.(6)
5) Saturated Fats Are Nutrient-Dense
An often-overlooked aspect of dietary saturated fats is the fact they contain essential fat soluble vitamins like A, E and K2. Vitamin E is a strong fat-soluble antioxidant that keeps your cell membranes healthy, vitamin A supports your innate “first line of defense” immune system and vitamin K is critical for vascular health (thereby improving your heart health!).(7,8,9)
Still not convinced? The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation recently removed the “upper limit” of saturated fat intake (previously set at 10% of fat intake) as there was no evidence to support such limits. This should have been front-page news across all newspapers and media outlets… however it was met with a mute response.
The bottom-line: Saturated fats are important for overall health and vitality, no evidence exists to support them as “harmful”, despite a half century of industry-fueled efforts to promote this claim.
Remember, context matters. Personalized nutrition means each individual will thrive on a varying amount of healthy saturated fats.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
Check out the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast with expert Nina Teicholz for the whole story on "Why We Fear Saturated Fats"...