24 Jul Should You Fear Saturated Fat?
By Stella Sarkisyan, MS, Contributing Blogger
There was a time when questioning the evils of ‘artery-clogging saturated fat’ could buy you a ticket on the crazy train. But these days saturated fat has become a buzzword with its recent burst onto popular media. With new studies and books reevaluating its link to heart disease, top experts are questioning its health implications.
Your Body Needs Fat
Fats are very important molecules in the body. They supply nutrients the body needs but cannot make itself (like the omega fats), while providing energy and helping absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
There are two types of fats: those that are solid at room temperature (like butter, tallow, lard, cream, coconut oil) and those that are liquid (like olive, sesame, and vegetable oils). Solid fats contain more saturated fats, which are made from straight carbon chains and are ‘stackable’. Liquid fats, on the other hand, contain more unsaturated fats, which have kinks in their chains. Most solid fats come from animals while most liquid fats are derived from plants. The exceptions include seafood (which contain little saturated fat), as well as coconut and palm oil (which contain saturated fat).
But fat does have its benefits. Fats form most of your body’s hormones as well as half the protective layer around your body’s cells. Also, since fat takes longer to digest you feel more satisfied and full longer after eating a meal containing some fat.
Saturated Fat and Heart Disease
So why has such an important nutrient gotten so much bad press? One reason is because fats contribute the greatest number of calories per gram (9 compared to just 4 from protein and carbohydrates). But the fear of fat is more complex, going back to the champion of saturated fat reduction, Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys. Keys directed the Seven Countries study of 1963. This large study found higher rates of heart disease in the counties where people ate more foods with saturated fat. However, critics point out that Keys only used 7 of the initial 22 countries he studied, leaving out the 15 countries that didn’t support his claims. But Keys became very popular at a time when heart disease was just beginning to be recognized as a growing threat, and in this state of fear, so did his ideas.
The USDA’s current recommendations suggest reducing solid fats to less than 10% of total daily calories, replacing them with liquid fats. These recommendations have changed little since the 1990s. It was believed that eating saturated fat increased cholesterol in the body, which clogged the arteries and veins carrying blood to and from the heart. Over time, this resulted in heart disease. However, recent discoveries are actually shifting the blame to inflammation caused by the oxidation (or breakdown), of fats in the blood.
Of course there have been studies of heart disease and saturated fat since Keys. Some of the research support his theories while others do not. What is important to remember is that no study has yet to prove that saturated fat alone actually causes heart disease. Further, a single cause of heart disease is very difficult to isolate because many lifestyle choices in addition to diet, like lack of exercise and smoking, can make a difference.
In light of recent studies, critics have once again asked to clear saturated fat as the cause of heart disease. Their case seems to be getting stronger. Earlier this year, a large study of 600,000 participants from 18 countries did not find any support for decreasing saturated fat. The study actually found that people who ate more saturated fat were not more likely to develop heart disease, and that eating more liquid fats (considered heart healthy) did not protect from developing heart disease. In other words, the study suggested that swapping butter for vegetable oil might not protect you from heart disease.
Can I Eat Butter?
Although more research needs to be done on saturated fat, we do know that foods that contain saturated fat are still sources of concentrated energy. This means that saturated fat can be balanced into a healthy eating plan. Choose less processed options of saturated fats like butter, full-fat dairy, cheese, and cuts of meat with visible fat over sausages, bacon and hot dogs. If you still want to reduce saturated fat, be aware that what you choose to eat instead of saturated fats is very important. Replacing butter with processed foods and refined carbohydrates, like sodas and bakery snacks, will have far more negative effects on your health.
If you feel like this new researched has pulled the rug out from under you, take comfort in the fact that more research needs to be done. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils, like the ones found in fried food, margarine, and pre-packed foods, have been repeatedly shown to contribute to many heath issues and should still be eaten sparingly.