The Truth About Saturated Fat

butter, saturated fat, fats, trans fat, heart diseaseThe first scientific indictment of saturated fat was made in 1953. Dr. Ancel Keys published an influential paper comparing fat intake and heart disease mortality in six countries: the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Italy, and Japan. The Americans ate the most fat and had the highest death rate from heart disease; the Japanese ate the least fat and had the fewest heart disease deaths.


But while data from those six countries seemed to support the diet-heart hypothesis, statistics were actually available for 22 countries. When all 22 were analyzed, the apparent link disappeared. The death rate from heart disease in Finland was 24 times that of Mexico, although fat-consumption rates in the two nations were almost the same.


This fascinating MSNBC article examines in depth why saturated fat has been unfairly demonized, and the truth about fats and heart health.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

I don’t know if you fell for it, but I certainly did -- the low fat myth. I bought it hook line and sinker in the 70s and early 80s, and it was all based on flawed science.  Low fat is actually quite good for the 1/3 of people who are carb nutritional types.  Unfortunately it wasn’t very good for me at all and caused some health challenges.

Fortunately though, I continued to study and learn and eventually realized that fat was not the evil it was being made out to be.

A subset of the low fat myth that persists to this day is the belief that saturated fat will increase your risk of heart attacks. In 2002 the "expert" Food & Nutrition Board gave the following misguided statement: "Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol have no known beneficial role in preventing chronic disease and are not required at any level in the diet."

Folks, this is simply another myth that has been harming your health and your loved ones for the last 30 or 40 years, ever since Dr. Keys managed to convince the establishment that his unproven hypothesis was fact.

Confusing the Facts is Part of the Problem

Part of the scientific confusion relates to the fact that your body is capable of synthesizing saturated fats that it needs from carbohydrates, and these saturated fats are principally the same ones present in dietary fats of animal origin. However, and this is the key, not all saturated fatty acids are the same. There are subtle differences that have profound health implications, and if you avoid eating all saturated fats you will suffer serious health consequences.

There are in fact more than a dozen different types of saturated fat, but you predominantly consume only three: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid.

It’s already been well established that stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) has zero effect on your cholesterol levels, and actually gets converted in your liver into the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid.

The other two, palmitic and lauric acid, do raise total cholesterol. However, since they raise “good” cholesterol as much or more than “bad” cholesterol, you’re still actually lowering your risk of heart disease.

Why do You Need Saturated Fat?

Foods containing saturated fats include:

  • Meat
  • Dairy products
  • Some oils
  • Tropical plants such as coconut and palm trees

These (saturated) fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet, and they provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone like substances.

When you eat fats as part of your meal, they slow down absorption so that you can go longer without feeling hungry. In addition, they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are also needed for the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption, and for a host of other biological processes.

Humans have eaten animal products for most of their existence on earth and therefore, they have consumed saturated fats for most of that time. If saturated fats were of no value or were harmful to you, why would breast milk produce saturated fats like butyric, caproic, caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids, which provide a naturally perfected source of nourishment to ensure the growth, development and survival of your infants?

Saturated fats are also:

  • The preferred fuel for your heart, and also used as a source of fuel during energy expenditure
  • Useful antiviral agents (caprylic acid)
  • Effective as an anticaries, antiplaque and anti fungal agents (lauric acid)
  • Useful to actually lower cholesterol levels (palmitic and stearic acids)
  • Modulators of genetic regulation and prevent cancer (butyric acid)

However, There IS Still a Link Between Fat and Heart Disease!

Now, it is clear that there is some association between fat and heart disease. The problem lies in the fact that most studies make no effort to differentiate between saturated fat and trans fat. I believe this is the missing link.

If researchers were to more carefully evaluate the risks of heart disease by measuring the levels of trans and saturated fat, I believe they would find a completely different story.

Trans fat is known to increase your LDL levels, or "bad" cholesterol, while lowering your levels of HDL, known as "good" cholesterol, which, of course is the complete opposite of what you need in order to maintain good heart health. It can also cause major clogging of arteries, type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems.

Unfortunately, many food companies use trans fat instead of oil because it reduces cost, extends storage life of products and can improve flavor and texture.

Your body needs some amount of saturated fat to stay healthy. It is virtually impossible to achieve a nutritionally adequate diet that has no saturated fat. What you don’t need, however, are trans fats.

One point you should be aware of is the loophole used by many food companies to get around the labeling requirements for trans fats. See, they can still claim their product is trans fat-free if it has less than 500 mg trans fat per serving. So many have decreased their serving size to the point that the ratio of trans fat falls below 500 mg.

Therefore, if a serving size seems ridiculously low, it’s probably hiding trans fat content.

Contradictory Results SUPPORT Nutritional Typing

Studies also clearly show that despite great compliance to low saturated fat diets, there is a wide difference in biological responses. What could this mean? Is it just poor science or flawed studies?

Not necessarily, because for one, it absolutely supports nutritional typing, which predicts that one-third of people will do very well on low saturated fat diets (which supports the studies showing that they work), but another one-third of people need high saturated fat diets to stay healthy. I happen to be one of those who need a high saturated fat diet to stay healthy and warm.

I would agree with the final conclusion of this MSNBC article, that bad habits, such as lack of exercise and not eating the right foods for your biochemical needs cause more heart disease than any specific “bad food.” As Dr. Volek stated, “If you consistently consume more calories than you burn and you gain weight, your risk of heart disease will increase – whether you favor eating saturated fats, carbs, or both.”

+ Sources and References