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Are You Afraid of Saturated Fat? Studies Say Not to Worry

What will it take for nutrition experts to give up their fear and loathing of saturated fat? Science suggests the sat-fat prohibition was a colossal mistake

How many studies will it take before doctors and nutrition experts change their minds about saturated fat? For the last 50 years, Americans have been told that eating sat fat was the quickest way to heart disease. But new evidence suggests that advice was flawed.

Science vs. Superstition:

A study in the BMJ (online August 12, 2015)  is just the latest of many suggesting that saturated fat is not a dietary demon. A statistical analysis of 12 studies including up to 339,000 participants found no connection between saturated fat in people’s diets and their likelihood of dying during the study, developing heart disease, suffering a stroke or being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

The Trans Fat Deception:

Trans fats from hydrogenated vegetable oils, on the other hand, were linked to heart disease and cardiovascular deaths. This is not encouraging news, because for more than half a century we’ve been urged to switch from butter for our bread and cream for our coffee (high in saturated fats) to margarine and non-dairy creamers (containing trans fats).

How could the nutrition establishment get it so wrong for so long? Part of the problem is that saturated fat looks nasty at room temperature. If you’ve ever cooked a lamb chop in a skillet and then allowed the fat to congeal, it is easy to imagine that hardened fat collecting on the walls of your arteries.

Despite the graphic image, that’s not what happens. Your body is surprisingly good at processing saturated fat. It does not handle industrial-made trans fats well, however.

The Loudest Shouters:

Because nutrition experts have insisted that saturated fat is the number one dietary enemy for over 50 years, most health professionals accepted that dogma without question. As a result cardiologists, internists, family practice physicians, nurse practitioners and registered dietician have almost universally admonished their patients to stay away from sat fat if they wanted to reduce their risks of heart disease.

Old Ideas Die Hard…if Ever:

Although there are many studies showing that saturated fat does not appear associated with heart disease or early demise, old ideas die hard. People are still being advised to stay away from sat fat. Just look at the yogurt or milk aisle in the supermarket. Most of the products are nonfat, low-fat or reduced fat. The idea of eating full-fat yogurt still seems sinful. Ditto for milk. Two generations have grown up thinking that low-fat or skim milk is a healthier choice to full-fat milk.

Still Skeptical? More Solid Science!

In an earlier meta-analysis of 72 studies, scientists found no link between saturated fat on the plate and the likelihood of a heart attack (Annals of Internal Medicine, March 18, 2014).  In fact, a blood fat marker for dairy fat consumption was inversely linked to a possible risk of heart disease. This finding suggests that fats from milk and dairy products might be protective rather than harmful.

Of course this sort of science often disappears without a trace. That’s because it defies conventional wisdom. Health professionals have a hard time with contradictory evidence. Even if there was very little solid science to support the original prohibition to avoid saturated fat, experts often feel foolish reversing their recommendations. As a result, they stick with a sinking ship long after the public has jumped off.

What Happens When You Cut Back on Fat?

When people decide they need to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diets, they usually replace the fat calories with something else. Switching to trans fats is now known to be counterproductive. What about adding more calories from carbohydrates?

An experiment compared the effects of a diet containing cheese, a diet with same amount of calories from meat and a low-fat nondairy diet high in carbohydrates (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online July 15, 2015).  For the overweight women in this study, the diets rich in saturated fats from meat or cheese raised good HDL cholesterol and seemed less likely to clog arteries than the low-fat high-carb diet. We are tempted to conclude that your breakfast toast is more dangerous than the butter you put on it.

What About Low-Fat Yogurt?

We also suspect that the sugary jam in the bottom of your low-fat or no-fat yogurt container is far worse than the full-fat Greek yogurt that actually tastes good without added sweet fruit. The low-fat, high-carb food experiment that was perpetrated on the American public for decades has created nothing but misery in the form of obesity and diabetes.

Anyone who would like guidance on how to lower LDL cholesterol with diet may be interested in our Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health. In it, Laura Effel explains how she lowered her LDL cholesterol 44 points in 5 weeks without drugs. Hint: she did it in part by avoiding blood sugar spikes, a consequence of a high-carb

Share your own thoughts about saturated fat. Are you not a little indignant that over 50 years of dietary dogma is disappearing like a puff of smoke in a wind storm? Please comment below and vote on this article at the top of the page.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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