The Case Against Saturated Fat

Common knowledge is something we all regard as plain truth and does not need to be debated or discussed. Go for a walk on a rainy day and you’ll get wet. Staying for too long in the sun will make your skin burn.  Drinking coffee before you go to sleep may keep you awake. Smoking may damage your lungs and so on.

For years I have recommended my patients to stay away from saturated fats. This is what I learned in medical school and during my training as a cardiologist. The concept sounds quite simple indeed. I’ll explain it to you: Cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. The higher your blood cholesterol, the higher your risk for heart attack. Lowering cholesterol therefore should be beneficial. Furthermore, we have been told that saturated fats raise blood cholesterol. Therefore, obviously; Eat less saturated fats if you want to avoid heart attacks.

However, considering the complexity of the human body, this sequence of events is probably too simple to be true. Moreover, total cholesterol and LDL – cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) are absolutely not the only factors that matter when it comes to diet and heart disease. Why should they be? Nature seldom provides us with such simplicity. What about refined carbohydrates? What about obesity? What about insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome? What about blood levels of triglycerides and HDL – cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol)? What about LDL particle size which may be negatively affected by sugars. What about inflammation which many specialists today believe plays a role in heart disease? So, what is the case against saturated fat?

Let’s look at the theories on cholesterol a little closer. Basically they are twofold. One is the so-called lipid hypothesis which simply implies that an elevated level of cholesterol causes heart disease and therefore lowering cholesterol will be helpful. The other is the diet – heart hypothesis which implies that eating saturated fats and cholesterol will increase the risk of heart disease, supposedly by raising blood levels of cholesterol. I am not going to discuss the lipid hypothesis this time, but rather focus on the latter, the diet – heart hypothesis.

The main reason saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease is their tendency to elevate LDL-cholesterol. We’ve learned that LDL is the bad cholesterol. The lower the blood levels of this substance, the less risk of heart disease. This has been the main focus of dietary recommendations in cardiovascular prevention and treatment for decades. Why such a huge effort has been put in promoting the risk of saturated fats and their possible effects on blood cholesterol is hard to understand, not least because the scientific support behind it is indeed fairly weak.

It is important not to confuse saturated fat with trans fat. Saturated fat is a natural fat found in animal products such as meat, milk and cheese. Saturated fat is also typically found in tropical oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils. On the other hand, the majority of trans fats in our food are manufactured by adding hydrogen bonds to unsaturated fats. This makes the fat more stable, so it doesn’t spoil as quickly. These fats are usually called “hydrogenated fats” or “partially hydrogenated fats”. There is evidence linking consumption of trans fats with increased risk of heart disease.

Although saturated fats are often thought of as a group, it is important to keep in mind that they are not all the same. There are many different types of saturated fats and they may have different health effects. Grouping them all together is based on their chemical nature which implies that all the hydrogen bonds in the fat molecule are used. Saturated fats with carbon chain lengths of 14 (myristic) and 16 (palmitic), which are chiefly found in full fat dairy products and red meat, are most likely to increase blood levels of cholesterol. Stearic acid (18 carbon) which is also found in beef, and is the main fatty acid of cocoa butter, appears to increase cholesterol less.

Now, let’s say we are going to cut down the consumption of saturated fats. What do we replace them with? Are we going to increase carbohydrate consumption instead? Or, are we going to eat more monounsaturateded or polyunsaturated fatty acids instead? Data from some clinical trials have shown that substitution of polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat may result in a reduced incidence of coronary artery disease. However, this is not true for all studies. There is no evidence that that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates is beneficial.

Many studies have linked the so-called Mediterranean diet with a reduced incidence of coronary artery disease. This diet generally involves an increased intake of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. Alpha-linolenic acid is a kind of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. It is similar to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in fish oil, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The Lyon Diet Heart Study compared the Mediterranean diet to a one involving higher consumption of saturated fats in patients with a prior history of heart attack (myocardial infarction).  In the Mediterranean diet group there was a slightly more consumption of carbohydrates and fiber. In this study there was a 72% reduction in recurrent coronary events in the group receiving the Mediterranean diet. Secondary analysis has indicated that this positive effect correlates with the increased consumption of alfa-linolenic acid. However, the fact that omega – 3 fatty acids may be beneficial does not in itself imply that saturated fats are dangerous. Why should it?

Let’s look at the largest controlled intervention trial on diet and heart disease to date, the Women’s Health Initiative. This trial randomly assigned more than 48 thousand women, 50 – 79 years old, to a low-fat intervention or a comparison group. Saturated fat intake was lower in the intervention group as was dietary polyunsaturated fat. However, dietary carbohydrates were higher in the intervention group. After six years of follow-up there were no differences between the groups in the incidence of coronary heart disease and stroke. So, replacing fat with carbohydrates does not seem beneficial.

A metaanalysis, published 2010 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, including 16 prospective observational cohort studies has indicated that there is no association between the intake of saturated fats and coronary artery disease. There is another study addressing the intake of saturated fats in childhood that found no association with adult coronary heart disease mortality.

There is evidence that for a large proportion of the population, high carbohydrate diets may create a metabolic state which is characterized by elevated triglycerides, reduced HDL – cholesterol and increased concentrations of small, dense LDL particles. This is especially true for those who are overweight, have insulin resistance or diabetes. Recent studies indicate that reducing carbohydrate intake in this population, but not saturated fat, may be beneficial.

Therefore, the common knowledge that saturated fats are associated with cardiovascular disease lacks scientific evidence. Furthermore, the  common wisdom that reducing the intake of saturated fats will reduce the risk for heart disease has a very weak scientific support. In light of the available scientific evidence it is hard to understand how we have managed to create those misconceptions. The case against saturated fat could not be won in any court.

Furthermore, the message to reduce the intake of dietary fat may have stimulated consumers and manufacturers to choose foods that may be potentially harmful and could have contributed to the so-called obesity epidemic and increased incidence of type 2 diabetes. Over consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates probably plays the biggest role. In fact the case against those appears very strong.

15 thoughts on “The Case Against Saturated Fat”

  1. Quote from paragraph 7: “On the other hand, the vast majority of trans fats in our food are manufactured by adding hydrogen bonds to unsaturated fats.”

    Technically, it would be more accurate to say that “the vast majority of trans fats are formed during partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acid chains.”

    Quotes from paragraphs 6 and 15: “Why such a huge effort has been put in promoting the risk of saturated fat,s and their possible effects on blood cholesterol is hard to understand, not least because the scientific basis behind it is indeed fairly weak…In light of the available scientific evidence it is hard to understand how we have managed to create those misconceptions.”

    This article explains how the anti-saturated fat campaign got started:

    This article documents the rise of the low-fat ideology:

    Corporations have always done what was necessary to protect supply chains. The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFICF) is the latest, most powerful iteration of a string of food and beverage supply chain protection schemes. It amounts to a corporation funded educational machine that shapes the content of dietetics instruction throughout academia. Here is what the IFICF says about itself:

    “Incorporated as a public education foundation in 1991 and based in Washington, DC, the International Food Information Council Foundation is independent and not-for-profit. We do not lobby or further any political, partisan, or corporate interest. We bring together, work with, and provide information to consumers, health and nutrition officials, educators, government officials, and food, beverage, and agriculture industry professionals. We have established partnerships with a wide range of credible professional organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions to advance the public understanding of key issues. For example, we have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion as part of the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, a public-private partnership focused on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPlate Food Guidance System. Recognizing the global nature of food safety, nutrition and health issues, the Foundation extends its mission internationally. We share education materials with an independent network of Food Information Organizations and partners from around the world. We also serve as a news media resource. We provide science-based information to the media and refer journalists to our 350 independent, credentialed experts on a variety of nutrition, food, and safety topics…We believe in the importance of educating health and nutrition professionals. We regularly host Continuing Professional Education (CPE) programs which are offered in person and via Web cast, and have developed a series of Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the American Dietetic Association, CPE-approved learning modules on a variety of subjects.”

    How do dietitians view this arrangement? Read Justin Stoneman’s article: America: A Big, Fat, Stupid Nation. Quote:
    “People in America like to think that they eat with freedom. Ultimately, however, they can only pick what is presented to them, and what they can afford. Then, the decision is based on what they believe to be healthy, tasty and safe. With that in mind, can you imagine how great it would be for the industries mentioned above, if dietary advice given could be contained and restricted to just one organization that they could pour money into? That scenario is not just some North Koreanesque wet dream. It is USA 2010. The ADA (American Dietetic Association) has complete monopoly on dietary advice. To keep the bubble airtight, the full might of the law has even been implemented. Kim Jong-il would be proud of the attention to detail. Staggeringly, in 46 out of 50 States, the message the authorities want you to have is protected. The law determines who is able to provide you with nutritional advice. The Commission on Dietetic Registration is the credentializing agency for the ADA. A practicing dietician not registered with the ADA or CDR is liable to face prosecution in over 90% of the country. With that in mind, who precisely is ‘sponsoring’ the ADA and the nutritional advice you receive? My friends, it is a beautiful army. Partners (recent and current — and their latest annual revenue figures): Coca Cola (revenue $31.4 billion), GlaxoSmithKline (revenue $42.5 billion), Hershey’s (revenue $5.3 billion), Unilever (revenue $55.8 billion), Aramark (revenue: $12.3 billion). There are even some ‘premier sponsors’: Mars (revenue: $30 billion), PepsiCo (revenue $44.3 billion), Truvia sweetener (revenue of parent company Cargill: $116.6 billion), Kellogg’s ($12.7 billion). ADA ‘sponsors’ have combined revenues of over $400 billion.

    Why are these gargantuan companies — whose only intention is to make money, not make you healthy — allowed to fund the ADA? The ADA themselves can perhaps assist us. On their own website (in the section where they are trying to seduce corporate America), they offer a helping hand: Why Become an ADA Sponsor? As ADA past president Martin Yadrick stated in a 2008 US News & World Report article: “We think it’s important for us to be at the same table with food companies because of the positive influence that we can have on them.” But, Martin, darling, they are paying you to be at their table. You are publicly telling America that you are somehow the one wearing the trousers in the relationship? My headline must be correct — even the ADA seem to think that America is stupid.”

    In the end, it’s not that hard to understand how the anti-saturated fat ideology originated, became common knowledge, and remains entrenched dogma. It’s simply good business for the edible oils industry. Or at least it was for the better part of a century.

    • Thanks David, for sharing your views on the subject and providing those links. I look forward to digging into the material you provided.

  2. Welcome to the dark side, doctor. Praise the lard!

    But seriously, thank you for having the strength of mind and character to challenge the orthodoxy on this issue. Please consider joining the “Paleo Physicians Network” if you intend to counsel your patients according to this blog post.

  3. Thank you for this blog. It gives me some good ammunition to counteract the recent spate of newspaper articles condemning saturated fat and low carb diets. Now I just have to figure out how to get my husband to read the article and David Brown’s comments and links. He has Diabetes 2 and has been brainwashed by the low carb diets are bad for you school of thought.

    • Thanks Pat for sharing your thoughts. There are of course many ways to lose weight and there may be different personal preferences. I have found the low carb/high fat concept very helpful in overweight men with type 2 diabetes. It is usually easy to follow, you will lose weight if you do it sincerely, the effect on type 2 diabetes is usually positive, HDL-C (the “good” cholesterol) usually goes up and triglyceride levels go down. You might even want to have your husband read this article: Should I try Atkins?

  4. Thank you for being brave enough to take a solid stand against the status quo.

    and the choir hums a few chords in the background …

    The body does better with more saturated fat than less. Saturated fats are required to make many vitamins & minerals (even Omega 3 fatty acids) bioavailable so they can be incorporated into the body structure. Saturated fat is required for the body to function properly & to regenerate & heal.

    7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat

    1) Improved cardiovascular risk factors

    Saturated fat in the diet is the only means to reduce the levels of lipoprotein (a) — that correlates strongly with risk for heart disease. Eating saturated fats raises the level of HDL, the good cholesterol.

    2) Stronger bones

    50% of dietary fats should be saturated fats for calcium to be incorporated into the bone structure, according to expert in human health, Mary Enig, Ph.D.

    3) Improved liver health

    Studies show that saturated fat encourages the liver cells to dump fat content. Saturated fat has been shown to protect the liver from toxic insults & even to reverse the damage.

    4) Healthy lungs

    The fat content of lung surfactant is 100% saturated fatty acids. Replacement of these critical fats by other types of fat makes faulty surfactant & potentially causes collapse of the airspaces & respiratory distress.

    5) Healthy brain

    Your brain is mainly made of fat & cholesterol. Most of the fatty acids in the brain are actually saturated. The brain needs saturated fats to function optimally.

    6) Proper nerve signaling & hormone production

    Certain saturated fats, found in butter, lard, coconut oil, function directly as signaling messengers that influence the metabolism.

    7) Strong immune system

    Saturated fats found in butter & coconut oil play key roles in immune health. Loss of sufficient saturated fatty acids in the white blood cells hampers their ability to destroy viruses, bacteria, germs & fungi. We need them to keep the immune system vigilant against cancerous cells & infectious invaders.

    Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades, explain the facts and benefits of increased saturated fat intake

    Saturated fats play many important biologic roles. They are an integral component of cell membranes, which are 50% saturated fat. Lung surfactant is composed entirely, when available, of one particular saturated fat. Properly made with this fat, it prevents asthma & other breathing disorders. For nourishment, heart muscle cells prefer long-chain saturated fats over carbohydrates. Saturated fats are required for bone to assimilate calcium. They help the liver clear out fat & provide protection from the adverse effects of toxins. Saturated fats in butter and coconut oil, play an important role in the immune system. They stabilize proteins that enable white blood cells to destroy invading viruses, bacteria, fungi, & fight tumors. Saturated fatty acids function as signaling messengers for hormone production, including insulin.

    Lipids (made from fatty acids) make up 60–80% of the central nervous system & need to be constantly replenished. Deficiency makes the nervous system vulnerable to the fat soluble metals, such as metallic mercury constantly escaping as vapor evaporating from the amalgam fillings.

    There never was one iota of scientific proof to condemn saturated fats as a cause of heart disease. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization. Through their direct effects on insulin & blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease & diabetes.

    Plaque build up in the arteries are more attributable to carb consumption than dietary fats, which seems to be the conclusion of the following study. Carb consumption raises triglycerides & VLDL (bad cholesterol). Fats raise the HDL (good cholesterol). High triglyceride levels & low HDL levels are an indicator of plaque, glycation – the precursors to a heart attack and heart disease.

    study from the Oxford group examining the postprandial (after-eating) effects of a low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diet. (Roberts R et al, 2008)

    Postprandial lipoproteins, you’d think, would be plentiful after ingesting a large quantity of fat, since fat must be absorbed via chylomicrons into the bloodstream. But it’s carbohydrates that figure most prominently in determining the pattern and magnitude of postprandial triglycerides and lipoproteins. Much of this effect develops by way of de novo lipogenesis, the generation of new lipoproteins like VLDL after carbohydrate ingestion.

    Dr.Mercola – Why half your diet should be from saturated fats –

    The link between saturated fats and heart health was based on faulty science but very few are willing to contradict the long standing myth. Both cholesterol and saturated fat are essential for growth in babies and children, especially the development of the brain. Still, the American Heart Association recommends a low-cholesterol, lowfat diet for children & adults.

    FINALLY they admit – no difference in the risk of heart disease even with highest intake of saturated fat & eggs are a superfood & have no effect on cholesterol

    Polyunsaturated fatty acids are fine *in whole food sources* but when they are separated from a whole food, it exposes the fragile oils to air & causes them to quickly oxidize (go rancid). Oil that has oxidized, does not just turn a heathy food to a neutral food, it actually makes it unhealthy by converting to harmful oxidized fats called lipid peroxides.

    I do NOT recommend polyunsaturated vegetable oils, oxidized oil creates free radical damage in the body. Lipid peroxides free radicals damage fatty cellular membranes. Lipid peroxides negate the body’s stores of antioxidants, making the body’s natural defenses vulnerable. There is also a need to balance your Omega 6 fatty acids with Omega 3 (an individual ideally needs more Omega−3 than Omega−6.)

      • Thanks you all for sharing. Great info DOC!
        David Brown, I’ve read your blog, but you seem to have stopped writing and publishing on your blog. Where can I read more of your texts? Thanks !

      • @ Gustavo M, I have lots of comment published on various websites and blogs regarding the saturated fat controversy and the omega-6 hazard. Google – David Brown guest writer, David Brown Omega-6, and David Brown Saturated Fat.

        I’ve stopped writing and publishing on MY blog because I have nothing further to say about the issues mentioned above. I plan to resume writing after the Updated version of “The Modern Nutritional Diseases: and how to prevent them” is released. I anticipate the new edition will contain a definitive discussion regarding the omega-6 hazard.

      • Well, it’s great to know that the spark is alive and that you’re still very active. It’s a fact I’ve noticed about people who’ve some way or another gotten into this subject: they take it very seriously and with passion – that means something: it’s a VERY important subject. I’ve read a lot on the subject and got to “know” many interesting and honest people in this field. That’s the case with the DOC and now you David. I’ll be following your ideas and spreading them over here in this corner of Europe. Thank you both.

      • Gustavo. Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate your comments and interest in my blog. I have been to Portugal a couple of times. Hopefully I will be able to visit again. I hope you will continue to visit the website and good luck with spreading the word in your “corner of Europe”.

  5. I don’t know about controlled studies, but for several years I have correlated my LDL and triglyceride levels with various food intakes, using both lab tests and a home test device. The lowest LDL and triglyceride levels (at or slightly below 100 mg/dL) occurred with high-animal-fat, low-carb meals the evening before. The best readings of all often would occur, after a dinner consisting of 6 strips of bacon. Consumption of high-carb meals would typically increase LDL and triglycerides the next day, by up to 50%. Vegetable fats typically had less beneficial effects, than animal fats.

    This isn’t science, but it works for me individually.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.