I’ve been on a mission to redeem the besmirched reputation of saturated fat (see “The Great Cholesterol Myth”, by myself and cardiologist Stephen Sinatra). Several recent studies clearly show that the association between saturated fat in the diet and the incidence of heart disease is exactly zero. What’s more, a new meta-analysis – recently published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine – made headlines around the world, scientifically debunking the notion that saturated fat is a bad guy. The researchers even questioned the conventional “wisdom” that vegetable oil is a better (or safer) choice than saturated.
We’ll get to that study in a minute, but first let’s point out that it’s hardly the first study to exonerate saturated fat. A recent meta-analysis looked at all the studies on saturated fat in the diet and hard end points such as heart attacks or cardiovascular disease. After examining 21 studies on the subject and analyzing the combined data carefully the authors concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease”.
The current study looked at saturated fat in the diet as well as blood markers of saturated fat consumption and found “essentially null associations between total saturated fatty acids and coronary risk”. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that supplemental omega-3 fats (fish oil, etc.) did not “significantly reduce the risk for coronary outcomes”. The one type of fat about which there was no ambiguity was trans fats, which significantly increased the risk for coronary events.
Public opinion on saturated fat has been shaped by years of misinformation, aggressive marketing by the purveyors of low-fat foods, and the misguided notions of many health organizations. The belief that saturated fat is “bad” was fueled by early research which has recently come under fire. Later research, such as the current study, has not supported the notion of saturated fat as a demon in the diet. Much more evidence is pointing to the role of sugar as a culprit in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. And the NY Times best-seller, Grain Brain, by noted neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, makes the case for the importance of saturated fat (and cholesterol) for optimal brain functioning.
It’s time to re-evaluate the “guilt” of saturated fat. Remember, during the first half of the 20th century when saturated fat in the diet was plentiful and “low-fat” hadn’t yet been invented, heart disease was far less common than it is today, as was obesity and diabetes. Saturated fat from healthy foods — such as red palm oil, coconut oil, grass-fed meat and the like — are not only harmless, they’re actually good for us. We look forward to the time when saturated fat stops being blamed for the diseases of civilization so that we can concentrate on reducing the things that really promote heart disease: inflammation, oxidative damage, stress in our lives and sugar in our diet.