Saturated Fat: Good, Bad or Benign?
Saturated fat is bad. Wait, no. Saturated fat used to be bad, now saturated fat is good. No, that can’t be right. Some saturated fat is good — like coconut oil — and some saturated fat is bad — like the kind from mass-produced meat. Yeah, that’s right.
Or is it? It really depends who you ask. The saturated fat debate is so confusing!
It’s been on my mind a lot lately — as I choose between olive oil and coconut oil, as I debate switching to full fat yogurt, as I consider if grass-fed and finished beef is actually a healthy option.
With two completely opposing schools of thought at war over the topic — mostly vegans vs. the paleo crowd — the truth about saturated fat is hard to uncover.
Luckily I know some smart, research-savvy people, and I turned to one of them to tackle the subject while I work my way through the land of coconut oil soaked corn fritters.
My friend and fellow blogger, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Caroline Kaufman (who holds a Masters in Nutrition from Tufts) has spent hours pouring over all of the relevant research and has offered to dole out her knowledge on the saturated fat debate.
Take it away Caroline!
Saturated Fat: What the Heck is Going On?!
by Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, blogger at CarolineKaufman.com
Ohmygosh. Should we be stirring our coffee with a stick of butter? Banish burgers? Eat burgers every night? Is coconut oil healthy? Is it terrible? WHAT?!
Since Whitney is on her amazing honeymoon (Hi, Whit!), she asked me to cover the sat fat debate, and set the record straight. Which, I’m going to do with one major caveat: Keep in mind that research evolves. The best we can do is look at the information we have and make a decision. If you stick with me, that decision is going to be heavily peppered with common sense.
First, I’m going to do something kind of unusual. Instead of waiting until the end to share my conclusion, I’m going to do it now: Focus on foods, not nutrients.
If you do, you’ll never, for instance, confuse a Snackwell’s non-fat cookie with health food just because it says 0 grams of fat on the label. You’ll see a cookie. And your common sense voice will say, “This is a cookie! This isn’t a heath food!” Even if you reply, “But it has no fat, and fat is bad for me, so this must be healthy!” Your common sense voice will firmly say, “NO. It is a cookie.”
Life is so much easier when you stop focusing on one nutrient, and look at the whole food package.
Trust your common sense voice, and you’ll be good.
If you stop reading right now, just remember that.
If you’re sticking with me for the rest of this, we’re getting into the research:
In 2014, a headline buzzing meta-analysis came out in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which combined data from sixty years of studies on fat and coronary events (like heart attacks). When researchers do a meta-analysis, they throw results from all sorts of similar studies into a giant data pool and look for patterns and trends. That means the quality of the analysis depends on how well the researchers pulled studies, how well they interpreted the study results, and how accurately they pulled out those patterns. There’s a lot of room for error, and a lot of room for criticism.
That 2014 analysis found that there was no convincing evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. And bacon lovers rejoiced.*
However, as David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center points out, the major issue with this study is that it looked at fat as a percentage of total calories. When people in those studies reduced their intake of saturated fat, what did they replace it with? If we look at population data, they probably replaced it with sugar and refined starch, says Katz. And that can lead to heart disease too. So if it looks like there’s no connection, it might be because the people who ate less sat fat ate more sugar and had cardiovascular events, and the people who ate more sat fat had cardiovascular events too! Everyone was unhealthy!
So, no, Katz says, saturated fat isn’t the enemy. No single nutrient is solely responsible for our good health or demise.
In fact saturated fat isn’t even a nutrient itself, it’s an umbrella term for different types of saturated fats. While we know that overall, saturated fats raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, says the University of California, Berkeley, “we don’t know if LDL cholesterol always leads to heart disease.” We do know that saturated fats don’t all work the same way, and some are pretty clearly not harmful. For example:
- The stearic acid in chocolate doesn’t raise “bad” LDL cholesterol at all
- The lauric acid in coconut oil is likely not harmful, however, we know that liquid vegetable oils like olive oil and avocado oil have heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and are definitely a good choice
- The saturated fats in dairy may not raise cholesterol in a dangerous way
It all comes back to food. “If you eat a lot of salt and trans fats and few fruits, vegetables, and fish, you’re at a high risk of heart disease no matter what your saturated fat intake is,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University (my graduate school!). Eat food, more plants than animals, in as close to their natural state as possible. And when you want the other stuff, the Oreos, the Cheetos, the whatever-os, eat them and enjoy them, and don’t worry about the fat or sugar content, because you’re eating good, real food the rest of the time.
At the end of the day, it’s not about saturated fat, it’s about food.
*Sorry Bacon Lovers. Processed meats are full of additives like nitrates, added sodium and phosphates. Smoked and grilled meats also contain a potential carcinogen (cancer-causing compound) called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. All of these tasty additions are linked to heart disease and cancer, so limit your intake.