Saturated fat has been considered a dietary no-no. Its consumption supposedly led to clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease. But saturated fat performs a variety of useful functions in the body, and new studies show that it may have been falsely accused. Discover the healthy side of saturated fat.
In the late 1970s, the American Heart Association took a powerful stand on the consumption of saturated fat, directly linking it with the epidemic of heart disease sweeping the Western Hemisphere. This sentiment, echoed by health agencies worldwide in the years to follow, would lead to decades of demonization for this lowly nutrient.
Over the past 30 years, the tarnished character of saturated fat has undergone a slow process of repair, gradually returning it from exile to the plates of self-respecting health-conscious individuals. The reasons for this reversal are evolving and complex and go so far as to question the dogma of cholesterol as a cause of heart disease.
The essential role of saturated fat in the body
Despite its “bad boy” reputation, saturated fat is essential to normal human functioning. Saturated fats are manufactured by the liver, highlighting their essential physiologic role. Among their various functions, saturated fats may influence gene expression and cancer prevention, help regulate hormones, and form the building blocks of cell membranes throughout the body.
Rather than existing as a single entity, these fats represent a class of more than two dozen compounds with similar chemical structures. Dietary sources include animal products such as red meat, poultry, dairy products, and processed foods, and plant-based sources such as coconut.
In the years since the initial release of anti-fat guidelines, reviews of the research behind the recommendations have levelled unflinching criticism at the policymakers of the day. One example from early 2015 touts the guidelines as essentially untested, owing to a lack of supportive controlled clinical trials at the time. The authors reach the alarming conclusion that the advice “should not have been introduced” at all, based on further analysis of study design and interpretation. Others have echoed this critique.
This change of heart has been buoyed by ongoing research into the connection between diet and cardiovascular outcomes. It is widely accepted that saturated fats may increase blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol. In turn, heart disease may be associated with higher levels of LDL in the blood. However, a conclusive link has yet to be drawn between saturated fat in the diet and resulting heart disease, despite extensive study.
LDL—only part of the picture
One explanation for this apparent incongruence may be that LDL is not itself a cause of heart disease but a factor that can help to identify those people at highest risk. In an environment of other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidation, LDL can definitely be bad news for the heart. But lowering LDL on its own without considering these other players is not a life-saving strategy.
Studies of cholesterol-lowering medications have provided unexpected support for this concept. Drugs that simply lower cholesterol do not prevent cardiovascular deaths, whereas those that are thought to drop LDL while simultaneously decreasing inflammation, benefitting vessel walls, and improving vitamin metabolism have been shown to save lives. LDL is only one piece of the puzzle.
Guilty by association?
One of the most abundant sources of saturated fats in the Canadian diet is processed foods. Cautionary lists for avoiding saturated fat will often include mention of highly processed foods, which are typically high in salt, sugars, and trans fats; low in fibre; and devoid of living plant material. As processed foods are known to have links to heart disease and cancer, and trans fats deplete heart-loving high density lipoproteins (HDL), saturated fat may simply be taking the rap for its associates.
Changing perspectives around dietary fat in general have coincided with the pardon of saturated fats. Low-fat plans, once the darling of dietitians, have fallen out of favour amid large population studies showing lack of benefit to cardiovascular health.
So, bacon for breakfast?
Although the recommendations to reduce saturated fat may no longer be as ironclad as previously thought, this shift shouldn’t represent a licence to switch to an all-fat, all-the-time plan instead. While these revelations should assuage some of the fear instilled by advice of years past, there is still reason to proceed with some caution where saturated fat is concerned. In particular, processed meats are still not a healthy choice.
Fats of all kinds are wonderfully efficient carriers of calories. Gram for gram, fat contains more than twice the calories of either carbohydrates or protein, adding up quickly in a high-fat diet. Overconsumption of calories will lead to obesity and insulin resistance, which are perhaps more significant risk factors than dietary saturated fat was ever thought to be.
As fats are calorically dense, some forms will be quite satisfying. If you’re taking the brakes off saturated fat in your diet, ensure that you choose healthy, whole food sources of fats and continue to emphasize fresh, unprocessed foods. Filling up on high-fat foods may risk bumping potent heart-helping, but lower fat, fruits and vegetables from your plate.
Additionally, speak to your health care practitioners about the impact of saturated fats in your individual case. Published research summarizes the known effects of foods on a population, but individual care is far more complex than this. A diet lower in saturated fats may still be most appropriate for you in consideration of your overall health picture.
What kind of fat should I eat?
Cultivating diversity in the diet in general has been shown to protect against both metabolic syndrome and various cancers. Take the same approach for the fat content of your diet.
Choose saturated fats that are components of nutrient dense foods (see sidebar, “What are the best sources of saturated fat?” on page 67) and include fats from other classes for their health-promoting properties.
- Avocados and olive oil are monounsaturated fats, thought to benefit blood glucose control. Avocado is rich in fibre, while olive oil may decrease cardiovascular death and cancer risk.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, primarily found in fish, fish oil, and flax oil, that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects.
The “saturated fat comeback” is a clear demonstration of the multifactorial nature of heart disease. Combining whole food-based fats of all varieties with stress management, exercise, and thoughtful calorie choices is sure to feed your heart, body, and soul.
What are the best sources of saturated fat?
Unprocessed, unrefined foods are the best sources of saturated fat, as they provide a host of vitamins, minerals, and other fats in the bargain.
Raw, unrefined coconut oil
Find a source that is free of chemical solvents and boasts a natural coconut smell and taste.
Along with a lower total fat content, grass-fed beef may contain more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids than its grain-fed counterparts.
Organic dairy products
Dairy products, including butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese, may be protective against heart disease, despite previous advice to the contrary.