Quick quiz: Where have you heard this phrase before?
“…as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol…”
If you ever catch a TV commercial for food or drugs – um, pretty much all of them that are low-fat or cholesterol related – you’ve heard the voiceover say this. Our culture is pretty much brainwashed with the fact (fact?) that saturated fats are bad for you. (Cholesterol gets a bad rap, too, but you’ll have to read about eggs to hit that topic today. We’re talking pure, unadulterated fat around here.) So why all the fuss? What is it about saturated fats that the medical and food processing communities say is so evil?
The Bad Rap for Saturated Fat
Saturated fat has been blamed for causing cancer and heart disease. Bacon, butter, and red meat are the poster children for obesity and heart attacks, are they not? (They may have been framed – keep reading!)
Here are the accusations against saturated fat:
- High saturated fat intake is linked to high blood cholesterol.
- High blood cholesterol is linked to increased rate of heart disease.
- As the rate of heart disease increased over the last century, saturated fat was blamed, in part because foods high in saturated fat are also often high in cholesterol (see above).
- The fat around the heart is highly saturated, so many thought that heart attacks were caused by a build-up of saturated fat caused by eating too much of it.
And the rebuttals:
- From the Framingham Heart Study (Nourishing Traditions, p. 5): “The more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum [blood] cholesterol….the people who ate the most saturated fat…weighed the least and were the most physically active.”
- From a 2001 Harvard research review article (In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, p. 43): “The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease (Pollan’s words).” And the review found “a weak and nonsignificant positive association between dietary cholesterol and risk of CHD [coronary heart disease].”
- The first case of heart disease was recorded in 1912, and obviously rates have increased ever since (Let’s Get Well by Adelle Davis). Consumption of saturated fats has actually decreased (Real Food by Nina Planck and ibid. Pollan) while hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats) came on the scene in the late 1800s, just in time to be a potential suspect for heart disease’s rise to fame.
- The fat around the heart matches beef fat and other fat only found in animals. The heart needs this fat – “It draws on this reserve in times of stress.” (NT p. 11)
Saturated fats have been called “artery-clogging”. Don’t you get an image of the man eating the steak with the baked potato drowning in butter keeling over from a heart attack? So what is arterial plaque made of? It’s about 26% saturated, and the rest is unsaturated. (from The Lancet, 1994 by Felton, as quoted in NT.) Saturated fats have been given a bad rap. They are not the culprit behind the massive increase in heart disease over the last century.
How Americans have Changed their Fats
The most striking lists I’ve read this year:
Top fats eaten at the turn of the 20th century (1900, for those who get that stuff mixed up, like me):
- coconut oil
- tallow (beef fat)
- olive oil
Fats eaten at the turn of the 21st century (or right about now):
- olive oil
- corn oil
- soybean oil
- canola oil
- safflower oil
Notice that olive oil is the only one on both lists, so great has our fat consumption changed. Nothing on the second list is high in saturated fat. If sat-fat is the cause of heart disease, one would think heart disease would be decreasing by leaps and bounds, but it’s doing the opposite.
Why we SHOULD eat Saturated Fats
- They are highly stable and do not go rancid easily. (Just wait until you learn about what rancid fats can do to your body…and which ones might be sitting in your pantry right now!)
- Saturated fats make up half the structure of cell membranes. They are responsible for the stiffness of the cell wall, while unsaturated fats cover flexibility. The cell membrane needs to be just right for the body to function properly, so obviously both kinds of fat are necessary. (from Real Food, p. 175)
- Bone health: For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, at least 50 percent of the dietary fats should be saturated. (NT p. 11)
- Omega-3s are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats. (I’m waiting for a commercial to tell me THAT!)
Specifically about butter and coconut oil:
- They are used for quick energy.
- They have antimicrobial properties.
- They build your immune system.
(See more at 7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat)
But What About “Saturated Fat is Bad For Me?”
Maybe this doesn’t sound right. Maybe this sounds like the exact opposite of what you’ve always been taught.
Mayo Clinic will still tell you saturated fats are “harmful fats”, grouped right in there with trans fats. The U.S. Government Dietary Guidelines (which are being revised currently) also say to limit intake of fats and oils high in saturated fats.
I’m sharing the conflicting information with you so you know my head is not in the sand. But I don’t really know what to do with these claims. I have to go with what feels right after praying about it. You may think I ought to base my family’s food choices more in factual information, but “go with my gut” is all I have left when sources are on opposite sides of the issue, and all of them are backed up with research! I’ve found that the philosophy of:
- Eating food that grows or eats things that grow
- Eating food as close to how God created it as possible (little processing)
- Eating foods that have been eaten for centuries
resonates with me. I can buy into traditional foods. Saturated fats have been a part of the diets of cultures throughout time, often quite prized for good health, strength and longevity. Who am I to debate history?
Want to read what others are saying on the topic?
Images used with permission from GraphicStock.com.