Saturated fat said to be as bad as ‘trans’ fats – but is it?

Many of you will know that there has been a big focus of late on the potentially toxic effects of industrially produced ‘trans’ fats which can be found in foods such margarine, biscuits and other baked goods and salad dressings. These fats have been strongly linked with an increased risk of heart disease, and also have associations with other conditions too including diabetes, infertility in women and weight gain.

However, just recently, I have noticed that certain health groups are beginning to put the spotlight back on that old favourite – saturated fat. Earlier this week, I read a report about how the American Heart Association is raising awareness about the perils of substituting trans fats for saturated fats in food. And today I read that this cry is echoed on this side of the Atlantic. Health bodies known as a the Faculty of Public Health and Heart of Mersey claim that cutting back on saturated fat is necessary to cut the risk of heart disease. But is it?

While we’re repeatedly told saturated fat has heart-stopping potential, the evidence for this is not as strong as you might imagine. For instance, of the couple of dozen or so studies that have looked at the link between saturated fat and heart disease, all but a small handful have found no significant association. Also, the great majority of studies which have had people reduce their saturated fat in take have found no benefits in terms of disease risk either.

Saturated fat has been said to boost cholesterol levels, which is then ‘assumed’ to boost heart disease risk. However, the evidence suggests that when individuals take dietary steps to reduce cholesterol, it simply does not save lives. That strongly suggests that cholesterol is simply not the dire threat to health it is so often made out to be. All of the evidence in this area is reviewed and referenced in my forthcoming book The True You Diet which is out at the end of May.

The idea that saturated fat is, for many of us, deeply ingrained in our psyches. For this reason I feel it’s important for all of us to remember this plain and simple fact:

Saturated fat has been in the human diet for as long as we have been on this planet, and is therefore something we are likely to be very well adapted to.

Compare this, however, to the industrially produced trans fats spewed out of factory facilities that we’ve had in our diet for less than a century.

Think of food in this way, and it becomes intuitively apparent to many people that saturated fat have likely had an unnecessarily bad rap. I agree that industrially produced trans fats should be removed from food. But the notion that saturated fat is just as bad or even worse is neither based in science nor common sense.

11 Responses to Saturated fat said to be as bad as ‘trans’ fats – but is it?

  1. Ian 2 March 2007 at 3:22 pm #

    Thought I’d add a few links to some articles that discuss the merits of saturated fats in more detail:

    http://www.westonaprice.org/knowyourfats/index.html
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/story/0,9950,770733,00.html
    http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/love-fat.html
    http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/taubes.html
    http://www.mercola.com/2002/aug/17/saturated_fat1.htm

    Obviously, one should apply caution when reading web sites, but a lot of these articles do contain references that can be checked further.

  2. Bo Piltson 2 March 2007 at 4:12 pm #

    I find it especially weird that someone like Marion Nestle should be so dead against saturated-fat cheese. She has vast knowledge of food and food politics as her first two books show. However, the third one was a disappointment. When I asked about the basis for her fat fear, Ancel Keys and Hegsted was her only references.

    So I asked how she could lean on fake statistics. In response she forwarded my mail to Keys´ successor in Minnesota, Harry Blackburn, who sent me some rather nasty messages and referred me to D. Steinberg who is now writing a faked “history” of the cholesterol question.

    So I have now stopped communicating with Americans on these issues.
    Sincerely,
    Bo Piltson

  3. Julie Quirke 3 March 2007 at 2:22 am #

    Really interesting, this one. Went from a diet high in complex carbohydrates (brown rice, wholegrain bread/pasta, etc) to a diet high in saturated, animal fats (grass-fed, organic lamb, beef, chicken and venison). Was eating 2 x 2 oz portions daily. After 5 months, had blood values re-checked. Cholesterol fell from 5.2 to 3.86 with an increase in HDL. Though that I had to be doing something right! Conclude that Dr Peter D’Adamo is on to something very significant. (I am an ’0′ non-secretor.

  4. pramila 3 March 2007 at 12:07 pm #

    It would be useful to know which saturated fats are healthier in comparision with others. Is there a difference in for example butter and clarified butter [ghee] with regards to health?
    Thank you for a very informative newsletter

  5. helen 4 March 2007 at 10:00 pm #

    I have investigated this matter myself & found that there is no link between saturated fat & heart disease nor any other disease. Quite the opposite in fact. If you read ‘the great cholesterol con’ by Anthony Colpo as well as various other publications by various doctors & scientists at http://www.thincs.org
    you will soon come to see how insane the whole idea that saturated fats or indeed the whole cholesterol is evil myth truly is. Trans fats are another matter entirely along with the heating of other vegetable based oils which can be healthy if eaten cold is another matter altogether. It really is a matter of man trying to best nature in what is healthy for us. Man made oils which include butters are the way to totally devastate the bodies cellular structure & ensure you will get sick from the diseases that are reaching epidemic levels but are really related to diet & the consumption of too many man made fats, carbohydrates & chemicals.

  6. Neil 4 March 2007 at 10:49 pm #

    Anybody else come across this ?

    http://timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article1466880.ece

    and on this site (second item)

    http://john-ray.blogspot.com/

    I haven’t seen the study etc, just what you read at this link. However the duration of the study seems longer than many.

    I also wonder how good the compliance was with the various diets. Previous dietary studies haven’t always achieved good compliance which must make their results and conclusions less secure

  7. Ryan Whitaker 6 March 2007 at 5:42 am #

    This is some very refreshing content. I invite anyone interested in similar content that questions the logic behind a heavy grain diet to browse my new site I just launched http://www.dsolve.com dedicated to helping diabetics achieve normal blood sugars through the use of a low carb diet.

    In particular I have a number of articles specifically dealing with what I consider to be the failed lipid hypothesis including many links to additional reading on this fascinating topic.

    I tend to agree that anyone that says saturated fats are bad has some serious explaining to do with respect to our non-grain eating millions of years of history. Again, lots of PDFs and links to content of this nature if it is of interest to anyone at D-solve.

  8. Steve Foster, PhD 9 March 2007 at 9:46 am #

    Dr. Briffa, do you or any of your correspondents know the scientific status of claims like that of Prof. Ravnkov (http://www.ravnskov.nu/cholesterol.htm) that cholesterol may have little or no links to heart disease? There was recently a special on Dutch TV about this (cf http://www.trosradar.nl) and there seems to be a small but growing number of cardiologists who make similar claims.

    Steve Foster

  9. Dr John Briffa 11 March 2007 at 2:25 pm #

    Steve
    Personally, I’m very sceptical about the supposed hazards of cholesterol. I’ve written about this on the site (searching for ‘cholesterol’ will throw up some relevant articles) and have also appraised the science on cholesterol in my forthcoming book The True You Diet.
    You may also like to read:

    The Cholesterol Myths by Uffe Ravnskov
    The Great Cholesterol Con by Anthony Colpo
    The Great Cholesterol Con by Dr Malcolm Kendrick

  10. Janta Silvey 12 March 2007 at 3:57 pm #

    I find your website, and emails, extremely useful and informative, and always make time to read them. Do you know whether there has been research into the possible effects of the increased cooking temperatures now commonly in use in the West? I am thinking of their effect on the various fats and oils. I noticed when visiting one of the Greek islands, 30 years ago, that everything was cooked in olive oil, but that the cooking, (and eating), temperatures were comparitively low.

  11. Neil 12 March 2007 at 11:57 pm #

    I have read that for high temp cooking, is better to use stable oils which means basically saturated fats. Fully hydrogenated fats are saturated too, but are rarely recommended now. I often use olive oil over a low light for my frying or sometimes butter.
    Greek food is excellent, I love souvlaki, and feta cheese. I’ll pass on squid though.

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