Avoid saturated fat.
How many times have heard or read that over the last 50 years? It’s probably the single most repeated piece of nutrition advice that you get from doctors, nurses, dieticians, your know it all aunt, and the internet.
That’s too bad - because it’s the wrong advice.
Let’s take a look at what maladies have been attributed to our consumption of saturated fat over the years.
Now let me break these down for you.
Heart disease became an “epidemic” in the US in the 1950’s. In the early 1900’s, it was very uncommon to die of heart disease. Infectious diseases were the most common cause of death since antibiotics had not been developed yet, and very little was understood about sanitary practices. Heart disease, in particular heart attacks, increased in prevalence from the turn of the century to about the 1960’s. Since the 1960’s, heart attacks as a cause of death have continued to decline.
The increase in heart disease correlated with an increase in smoking and dietary changes. The decline has been attributed to a decrease in smoking, improved early diagnosis of heart disease, and improved medical interventions. (1) The Surgeon General’s warning about smoking was introduced in 1964. The prevalence of smokers peaked at 42% in 1965, and has progressively decreased since then. (2) And as far as the “dietary changes” go, guess when processed foods and trans fats became popular.
High cholesterol has long been blamed as the cause of coronary artery disease. The theory was that cholesterol builds up in the arteries until it causes a blockage. The consumption of saturated fat was thought to increase cholesterol levels. The average cholesterol level in men decreased from 217 mg/dL in 1960-1962, to 194 in 2007-2010. This decrease in serum cholesterol levels occurred despite the fact that the percent of saturated fat in the average US diet was the same (14%) in 1993 as it was in 1975.(NHANES data) Statins were not introduced until 1987. The decrease in cholesterol levels after statins was nearly the same as the 20 years prior to the introduction of statins.
More recently, coronary artery disease has been recognized as an inflammatory disease. (3) Cholesterol and saturated fat intake are not the cause of heart attacks. Half of all heart attacks occur in individuals with normal cholesterol levels. Heart attacks are due to a chronic inflammatory process.
An historic meta-analysis of observational studies showed no association between saturated fat consumption and all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, death from a heart attack, stroke, or type 2 diabetes in healthy adults.(4)
But doesn’t the consumption of fat lead to a build up of fats in your blood? No, the fat in your blood travels around as triglycerides. The amount of triglycerides in your blood is related to your carbohydrate consumption - not the consumption of fats.
But surely eating fat makes you fat, doesn’t it? Nope.
Since about the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the medical establishment has been recommending low-fat diets to lose weight and stay healthy. Guess when our twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes began. Low-fat diets are necessarily high carb diets. In addition, the recommendation to go low-fat led to the proliferation of low-fat versions of common foods. The “healthy” alternative to a fatty food became a highly processed, high carb form of that food. (Low-fat Oreos anyone?)
Saturated fat is not the problem. Eating natural saturated and unsaturated fats makes you feel full and makes everything you eat taste better. Instead, the evidence suggests that highly processed foods (in particular, highly processed carbohydrates) and sugars are incredibly unhealthy for us. If you are interested in more on this, read my post about the Standard American Diet (or SAD).