One day saturated fat is bad for you… then it’s good for you… then it’s bad for you again. It seems like science can never make up its mind one way or the other.
Like most subjects, you can make a case for or against saturated fat simply by talking about the research that supports your point of view, and ignoring (or dismissing as flawed) everything else.
So rather than try to convince you that saturated fat is good or bad, I want to take a step back and explain why the subject still causes so much controversy.
Saturated Fat and Cardiovascular Disease
Imagine you’re a scientist who wants to test the hypothesis that cutting back on saturated fat reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
You’d round up a group of subjects, take some blood samples, and look at various markers of heart disease risk. Then, you’d divide the subjects into two groups.
The first group would be told to cut back on their intake of saturated fat. Group two would continue with their normal diet.
After a few years, you’d get all your subjects back in the lab, take some more blood samples and compare them with the blood samples you took at the start.
At this point, you’d have a better idea of whether or not the reduction saturated fat had an impact on the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Or would you?
Actually you wouldn’t, and here’s why.
First is the problem of subject compliance. How do you know that the subjects in your study are eating what they’re supposed to?
Underreporting of calories has often contributed to the error associated with dietary assessments, especially in overweight individuals. Diets can also change over time, and short-term records don’t always reflect long-term dietary patterns.
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Changing one nutrient also leads to a change in another. If your subjects cut back on their saturated fat intake without making any other changes to their diet, their calorie intake will go down and they’ll lose weight.
So even if you did find that this group had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, you don’t really know why. Was it because they reduced their intake of saturated fat, cut back on their calorie intake, or lost weight?
And if you tell your subjects to keep their weight and fat intake stable by replacing the saturated fat with another nutrient, such as unsaturated fat, you’re faced with another dilemma.
Was it the decrease in saturated fat or the increase in unsaturated fat that was responsible for the results?
This is one of the big problems with most studies on nutrition and health – observations about a given nutrient are highly dependent on what it’s being compared to.
Then you have the issue of time.
At the beginning of the study, subjects in the intervention group are usually very conscientious about their diet. But as the study progresses they tend to slip.
Control subjects, meanwhile, may change their diets voluntarily in response to health messages and over time there is convergence between the two groups.
To get meaningful data about the long-term effects of a diet, the study needs to last as long as possible. But the longer the study goes on, the harder it is to keep all the subjects in your study doing what they’re supposed to.
Professor Michael Oliver, professor emeritus of cardiology at the University of Edinburgh, argues that it’s “virtually impossible” to design and conduct an adequate dietary trial .
“The alteration of one dietary ingredient invariably leads to a change in another or to other changes in lifestyle, he says. “It’s often difficult to assume that the effects of a prescribed dietary change are solely related to the diet under test.”
Not All Saturated Fat Is the Same
Then you need to consider the fact that not all saturated fat is the same.
Back in the day, doctors thought that all cholesterol was bad, until they realized that it comes in both “good” and “bad” forms.
In much the same way, not all saturated fat is the same. In fact, there are many different types of saturated fat in the human diet, all with varying effects on your cholesterol levels.
The saturated fat profile of beef, for example, is different to that of dairy products, which in turn is different to that of coconut oil. The term “saturated fat” refers to a family of fatty acids, and the effect that one member of the family has on your health may be very different to another.
A saturated fatty acid is a chain of carbon atoms. These chains vary in length from short to medium to long. Some will have an odd or an even number of carbons in the chain.
In one study, people with higher levels of even chain saturated fatty acids (14, 16 and 18 carbons) in the blood had a higher risk of heart disease . Conversely, levels of odd chain saturated fatty acids (15 and 17 carbons) were linked to a decreased risk of heart disease.
Your Lifestyle Matters
Some research also shows healthy cholesterol levels despite a diet high in saturated fat.
The Fulani of the Jos Plateau, a mountainous state in northern Nigeria, consume a diet where almost 50% of the total calories come from fat . More than half of this fat is derived from food sources high in saturated fat, such as meat, cooking oils (palm oil and butter) and dairy produce.
Despite an intake of saturated fat that’s far higher than the level recommended in most countries, the average cholesterol levels (total, HDL, and LDL) are well within the range considered acceptable for both African Americans and the US population as a whole.
It’s important to point out that the Fulani are very lean. They don’t smoke. They don’t eat a lot. They’re very physically active. All of which may offset any potential adverse effects of saturated fat on cholesterol levels.
In other words, the lifestyle of the person consuming the diet matters. Saturated fat may very well be harmful in the context of one lifestyle and neutral in another.
Saturated Fat and Individual Variability
More interesting still, not everyone responds in the same way to a change in diet.
That’s one reason why there’s so much conflicting advice about how to get in shape. The “best way” for one person to eat may be very different to someone else’s “best way.”
In one study, subjects cut their intake of saturated fat in half . This led to an average drop in LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol, of around 12%.
However, the group average masks large individual differences in results. In some participants, the reduction in saturated fat led to a big drop in LDL cholesterol, while in others it hardly changed at all.
In a handful of subjects, LDL cholesterol actually went up.
In another trial, published in the journal Atherosclerosis, Norwegian scientists put a group of healthy, normal weight participants on a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet .
On average, LDL cholesterol levels increased by 44% compared to the control group, who stayed with their habitual diet. However, the individual increase in LDL cholesterol varied from between 5 and 107%. In some subjects, it went up a little, while in others it went up a lot.
In short, changes in saturated fat intake don’t affect everyone in the same way, and there is variability between individuals in response to an increase or decrease in saturated fat. While some people do just fine on a diet that’s high in saturated fat, you might not.
Saturated fat is not, and never has been, the villain that it’s been portrayed as. The impact it has on your health depends on the saturated fatty acid you’re talking about, how much of it you’re eating, what it’s being compared to, what other foods you’re eating, as well as who’s doing the eating.
Rather than getting hung up on the amount of saturated fat in your diet, shift your focus away from individual nutrients and look at the big picture of your overall diet and lifestyle. Some intake of saturated fat is not harmful against the background of a nutrient-rich diet and active lifestyle.
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