Poor old saturated fat. For over forty years now, it’s been spoken of only in hushed tones, dissed as nothing but artery clogging, obesity-causing poison. This “common sense fact” has become so widely accepted that a lot of people who want to improve their diet start by purchasing skim milk, ditching their egg yolks, and beginning a life free of steak, pork, and butter.
It’s time to bring bacon back to breakfast. After all, saturated fat is good for you.
We’ve Made a Huge Mistake
But we all make mistakes. This one started in 1970, with the first publication of “The Seven Countries Study.” The research looked at the incidences of saturated fat intake and heart disease among 12,763 men from (you guessed it) seven different countries, and showed a correlation between the two.
Unfortunately, the study was deeply flawed: It didn’t take into account important factors like smoking rates, sugar consumption, and exercise levels, and it left out an awful lot of data from other countries that contradicted the conclusions. The study’s authors actually had access to twenty-two countries’ data, and didn’t discuss any of the populations that followed diets with plenty of saturated fat and barely experienced any heart disease. Such communities include the Kenyan Masai, the Tokelau in Polynesia, and the Arctic Inuit.
Governments followed by making the supposed saturated fat-heart disease connection a matter of public health policy, an ideology which probably culminated with the abominable food pyramid of the 1990s— which recommended up to 11 servings of rice and pasta per day, and about as little fat as possible.
The result? In the past 30 years in the United States, the amount of calories from consumed fat has fallen from 40 percent to 30 percent, while obesity has doubled and heart disease has remained the country’s number one killer.
But the spread of obesity has no single cause; there are a lot of complicated factors that have led to America’s health crisis. To figure out whether saturated fat should be added back into our diets, let’s take a closer look at its effect on the body.
Why Saturated Fat Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease
In a 2010 evaluation of 21 studies and 350,000 subjects, saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease — and numerous other studies have reached similar conclusions
But what about cholesterol? We actually have two kinds of cholesterol in our blood: the HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”). Total cholesterol levels are less important than the ratio of HDL to LDL, but a simpler (if kind of flawed) approach is that we should try to increase HDL and decrease LDL. Saturated fat is generally believed to increase the bad cholesterol.
But that’s only part of the story, because there are also two kinds of LDL cholesterol: big, floaty particles (type A) and small, dense ones (type B). When someone reduces their consumption of saturated fat and their LDL cholesterol “drops,” they’re only lowering their type A particles. But it’s the type B particles that are more closely linked in heart disease, and they’re generally controlled by carbohydrate consumption
Why Saturated Fat Can Be Good For You
Saturated fat has been shown to have loads of positive effects on the body, including:
- Liver Health: Saturated fat encourages the liver cells to dump their fat cells, which helps the liver to function more effectively
Dietary saturated fatty acids: a novel treatment for alcoholic liver disease. Nanji AA, Sadrzadeh SM, et al. Gastroenterology. 1995 Aug;109(2):547-54. Opposite effects of dietary saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on ethanol-pharmacokinetics, triglycerides and carnitines. Cha YS, Sachan DS. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 1994 Aug;13(4):338-43..
- Immunity: Saturated fatty acids, especially the kinds found in butter and coconut, help white blood cells to recognize and destroy invading viruses and bacteria. Go get ‘em, boys!
- Hormones: Eating saturated fat tends to increase free testosterone levels, which helps to repair tissue, preserve muscle, and improve sexual function
Effects of dietary fat and fiber on plasma and urine androgens and estrogens in men: a controlled feeding study. Dorgan JF, Judd JT, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1996 Dec;64(6):850-5. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Volek JS, Kraemer WJ, et al. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1997 Jan;82(1):49-54..
Now, fat is high in calories, so it can promote weight gain in that respect. Per gram, it has more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates. But provided an eye is kept on portion size, saturated fat in and of itself doesn’t have any negative impact on the body. In fact, increasing fat intake might help with weight loss: One study found that when three groups of obese people were fed diets of 90 percent fat, 90 percent protein, and 90 percent carbohydrates, respectively, the high-fat group lost the most weight
DROP THAT HOT DOG!
This doesn’t mean every source of saturated fat is healthy. Case in point: A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that after analyzing the diets of 1.2 million people, there was no association between eating red meat and heart disease — but there was for those who ate a lot of processed meat
Basically, we should spend a little more on food. The body loves saturated fat, but from sources like grass-fed meat and butter, whole eggs, and coconut fat — not hot dogs and pepperoni pizza (sorry).By a mile, the biggest enemy in our food is likely refined sugar
But the tide is very slowly starting to turn. Prominent journals and scientists are beginning to speak out on saturated fat’s benefits, and, after government scientists reviewed 16,000 studies on diet and obesity, Sweden recently became the first Western country to advocate a high-fat diet to its citizens.
That’s because heart disease and obesity are caused by inactivity, trans fats, refined carbs, and overeating, to name a few — but not saturated fat. Toss the margarine and tuck into some buttered vegetables or a seared steak. We think you deserve it.
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