The Saturated Fat Myth and Heart Disease
For many decades now mainstream medical advice has been that saturated fat is bad and should be lowered at all costs to prevent heart disease. Surely then there must be strong evidence that saturated fat is a primary cause of cardiovascular problems? Actually there isn't.
Let's look at the saturated fat myth, how it relates to heart disease and why low-fat diets, along with recommendations to replace meals containing saturated fat with more high carbohydrate foods, can lead to obesity and related diseases like diabetes.
Heart Disease and Saturated Fat
Approximately one third of all deaths in the USA are attributed to heart disease and health organizations like the American Heart Association advise that less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.
But is there any solid scientific evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease or is it a myth perpetuated by old and long since discredited research?
While it has been observed, in some short-term studies, that increasing the amount of saturated fat eaten can also increase blood cholesterol levels, longer-term studies do not show a strong association between blood cholesterol and saturated fat intake. There is also ample evidence in recent years that cholesterol is not the dietary villain it's been made out to be.
We actually produced three quarters of the cholesterol in our bodies ourselves and it is a vital component of a well functioning body.
Only one quarter comes from dietary intake and for most people increasing saturated fat from healthy sources like free range eggs, grass fed meat or coconut oil will not increase blood cholesterol long-term as your body simply lessens the amount it makes.
For a detailed breakdown of why cholesterol and saturated fat are not the cause of heart disease for most people, read Chris Kresser's excellent four-part series on the subject.
Studies on Saturated Fat
A 2009 study entitled 'A systematic review of the evidence supporting a causal link between dietary factors and heart disease' conducted a detailed examination of all the cardiovascular disease studies on Medline that met their strict criteria of good science and optimal research methodology.
This wide-ranging investigation found "strong evidence... of protective factors" for "an increased intake of vegetables, nuts and a Mediterranean-style diet" but "insufficient evidence" of an association between reducing dietary saturated fat and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
They did however find "associations of harmful factors, including intake of trans fatty acids and foods with a high glycemic index or load." The pages on What Is Margarine? and Cutting Carbs to Lose Weight have more details on reducing these harmful factors in your diet.
Another large-scale meta-analysis of all the recent studies of the association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease found "no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) or CVD (cardiovascular disease)."
How the Saturated Fat Myth Leads to Weight Gain and Disease
While the mainstream medical community slowly comes around to the likelihood that its assumptions about heart disease, cholesterol and saturated fat may well have been a myth based on bad science, many cardiovascular experts are becoming vocal in their criticism of the saturated fat dogma.
Cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra said recently in the British medical Journal that recent studies “have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and risk of CVD.”
He also says that in the USA, the percentage of calories coming from fat has declined from 40% to 30% in the past three decades, yet obesity has rocketed. He believes the reason for this is that food manufacturers “compensated by replacing saturated fat with added sugar.”
Dr Malhotra concludes with, “It is time to bust the myth of the role of saturated in heart disease and wind back the harms of dietary advice that has contributed to obesity."
In response to the same article, Professor David Haslam of the UK's National Obesity Forum said: "It's extremely naive of the public and the medical profession to imagine that a calorie of bread, a calorie of meat and a calorie of alcohol are all dealt in the same way by the amazingly complex systems of the body. The assumption has been made that increased fat in the bloodstream is caused by increased saturated fat in the diet, whereas modern scientific evidence is proving that refined carbohydrates and sugar in particular are actually the culprits."
Even more scathing of mainstream medicine's view of saturated fat is an excellent new investigation by the ABC's Catalyst program called the Heart of the Matter. I'd highly recommend watching this video to understand just how saturated fat was demonized in the first place and what really causes cardiovascular disease.
Ultimately, the saturated fat myth looks to be an idea based on bad science that has remained dogmatically accepted and strangely persistent, despite a lack of any real evidence.
Large meta-studies in recent years have found no strong correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease (unlike stress, sugar, smoking, trans fats, lack of exercise and several other factors), and yet this drive to reduce saturated fat in our diets has been damaging.
It has millions of people around the world on statin drugs to reduce their cholesterol (now the most profitable drugs in history), with questionable benefits and many side effects.
It's led to low-fat versions of everything on the supermarket shelves, usually a simple switch from hunger satiating fats to hunger promoting sugar that increases the risk of diabetes.
And, despite the irony, eating less fat has definitely made people in Western countries fatter, as processed, high glycemic carbohydrate foods overtook more traditional meals with their higher saturated fats.
Do you still believe in the saturated fat myth? I be interested to hear different opinions and studies, but I would ask that you look at those listed on this page, and especially the Catalyst Heart of the Matter program above and see what the cardiologists and other cardiovascular specialists have to say about saturated fat and heart disease.