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You Ask, I Answer: Saturated Fat

Posted Nov 13 2009 10:01pm

You mentioned that saturated fat is the “bad” fat and this definitely is the common understanding these days.

Have you read any conflicting evidence about this?

After reading the first half of Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad CaloriesI came to the conclusion that saturated fat really isn’t a big deal unless you’re in the extreme heart disease risk category, which, at 27 and with normal cholesterol levels, I don’t think I am.

And, while I don’t agree with Taubes’ anti-carb approach, I found his evidence about regarding the fat-cholesterol link (and how research was so highly influenced by politics, guesswork, and some key personalities) very interesting, and moderately convincing.

It seems that cholesterol levels are only veeery minimally affected by saturated fat in one’s diet.

I’m wondering how you feel about this aspect of his argument, or if you’ve seen other people calling the evilness of saturated fat into question recently.

I thought I had it all figured out, but this is the one thing I’m still not sure about.

Thanks so much.

– Meredith (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Gary Taubes is certainly not the first — or only — person to question the saturated fat/heart disease connection.

Although some studies date as far back as the 1950s, Mr. Robert C. Atkins brought the research out of the scientific community and into the mainstream.

He — along with his proteges — claimed that eating endless amounts of steaks, butter, and bacon actually led to healthier lipid profiles than low-fat, high-carb diets.

And so we come back to the issue of flawed logic. Let me explain.

Like Atkins, Taubes and his ilk approach this scenario from a very narrow “black or white” perspective.

Firstly, they are quick to judge detractors as low-fat advocates.

This is grossly inaccurate. For instance, I strongly disagree with Taubes, but a quick browse through this blog makes it clear I do not advocate low-fat diets.

Instead, I believe that an adequate amount of the right fats is crucial for our health.

I fail to understand why Taubes and his supporters practically worship saturated fat but completely fail to mention the health benefits of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

They aren’t saying “fat is healthy; make sure to include almonds, olive oil, and wild salmon in your diet!” Instead, they pretty much push red meat and bacon.

Mind you, current guidelines do not call for a complete elimination of saturated fat from the diet; they simply suggest no more than 20 grams a day (assuming a daily intake of 2,000 calories).

Many dietitians — myself included — recommend a low intake of saturated fat, but simultaneously urge people to seek out the healthy fats found primarily in salmon, olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and avocados.

Although there are some professionals who advocate very low-fat diets — Dean Ornish comes to mind — many of the dietitians I know do not support skimping on healthy fats.

Now, when you compare a high-fat (in this case, saturated fat) low-carb diet to a high-carb (conveniently, high in refined carbohydrate), low-fat diet, the high-fat diet will lead to a better lipid profile ( triglycerides, for instance, are related to refined carbohydrate intake, not dietary fat).

This, however, is misleading.

It’s akin to only comparing bronze (diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in fat) and silver (diet high in fat, albeit saturated, but low in refined carbohydrates) and claiming silver to be the most expensive metal.

Yes, the most expensive of the two.

But, bring in platinum (a diet low in saturated fat but high in mono unsaturated fats and whole grains) and suddenly silver doesn’t look quite as amazing.

I would like Gary Taubes to compare two high-fat diets (one high in saturated fats, one high in mono and polyunsaturated fats) and conclude, with a straight face, that the saturated fat-rich one is the healthiest.

There are literally hundreds of human clinical research studies showing a correlation between saturated fat intake and heightened coronary heart disease risk.

One interesting one was published in the July 2005 edition of the British Medical Journal.

Turns out that, in 1991, the Polish government stopped subsidising foods high in saturated fat.

Eleven years later, “deaths from coronary heart disease had dropped by over a third in the 45-64 age group – a 38 per cent drop for men and 42% for women.”

During this time, saturated fat consumption fell by 7 percent, and — more importantly — polyunsaturated fat consumption increased by 57 percent!

We again come back to the notion that the key is not in reducing total fat intake, but in replacing saturated fats with healthier varieties.

Taubes happily bashes anyone recommending a low-fat diet, but what are his arguments against replacing saturated fats with Omega-3 fatty acids (a type of polyunsaturated fat) for improved lipid profiles?

Moving on to red meat, there is also a good deal of research showing that colon cancer risk is indeed affected by red meat consumption ( this 2006 meta-analysis from the Pakistan Journal of Nutrition summarizes some major findings well ).

A great Italian study by Talvani et al in 2000 also looked at red meat intake and cancer risk.

I recall Mr. Taubes scoffing and referring to all this evidence as “questionable” when he was on Charlie Rose several years ago.

How he came to that conclusion I do not know.

In my mind, sanctifying saturated fat and telling people to eat it liberally is irresponsible.

By the way, this idea that advice to eat less red meat is some sort of conspiracy relating to politics is rather laughable since, as Marion Nestle brilliantly explains in Food Politics, the national beef association threw a major hissy fit when Dietary Guidelines originally urged the public to simply “consume less red meat”.

They were quickly changed to “choose lean cuts of meat,” so as to not offend the powerful beef lobby.

We come back, as always, to the issue of moderation.

Have a slice of Swiss cheese here and there or pour a splash of whole milk into your morning coffee if it makes you happy; just don’t make saturated fats the main players of your diet.

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7 CommentsGary Taubes, cancer, carbohydrates, heart disease, low-carb, monounsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, red meat, saturated fat, triglycerides, whole grains

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