by Nils Osmar. Updated July 26, 2022. Medical disclaimer
Do saturated fats (like those found in meat, palm fruit and coconuts) cause heart disease? Should they therefore be avoided? And how do they compare with other fats, in terms of their effects on our health?
Some recent studies suggest that, if eaten in the context of a varied diet that includes several different sources of fat, saturated fats from both plant and animal sources can actually be healthy choices.
The FATFUNC study
According to an article published by the University of Bergen Faculty of Medicine (emphases are mine):
“A new Norwegian diet intervention study (FATFUNC), performed by researchers at the KG Jebsen center for diabetes research at the University of Bergen, raises questions regarding the validity of a diet hypothesis that has dominated for more than half a century: that dietary fat and particularly saturated fat is unhealthy for most people.
The researchers found strikingly similar health effects of diets based on either lowly processed carbohydrates or fats. In the randomized controlled trial, 38 men with abdominal obesity followed a dietary pattern high in either carbohydrates or fat, of which about half was saturated. Fat mass in the abdominal region, liver and heart was measured with accurate analyses, along with a number of key risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
“The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases,” says professor and cardiologist Ottar Nygård who contributed to the study.”
From a recent meta-analysis:
According to an article called “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease“:
A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.
So why the concern about saturated fat?
Sometimes ideas come along, get accepted by a majority of researchers based on evidence that later turns out to inaccurate, then are hard to discard because they’re so imbedded in both popular articles and the medical community. The notion that “saturated fats and cholesterol are bad” has been kicking around for decades, but has little evidence to support it. There’s strong evidence, for example, that saturated fats do not increase the odds of cardiovascular disease.
Another point of confusion is that people often confuse saturated fats with trans fats, and those spreading warnings about the supposed dangers of saturated fats often try to equate them. But they are not the same, and have very different effects in the body. There’s a lot of “noise” left over from the days when doctors were routinely warning about “cholesterol and saturated fats”. As Chris Kresser points out in this article, their warnings were based on questionable data which has often been contradicted by later research.
What about cholesterol?
Including foods rich in saturated fat in the diet can sometimes raise total cholesterol levels. But according to this Healthline article, the body’s response to both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol is highly individual. Some experience little or no increase; others do experience an increase in LDL; others experience an increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol) rather than LDL.
Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats can all be healthy
The healthiest diet appears to be one that includes some monounsaturated fats (from olives and avocados), some saturated fats (like those found in some cuts of meat and in coconut oil), and some unsaturated fats (like those found in sardines, mackerel and krill).
Seed oils are problematic
This isn’t to say that all unsaturated fats are healthy. Some fats, like corn oil, canola oil, and safflower oil which have been promoted as “heart healthy”, appear to actually be inflammatory and damaging. According to a recent Fairfax Times article, “Industrial seed oils are far from the “healthy” label they carry.
Industrial seed oils are highly processed oils extracted from soybeans, corn, rapeseed (canola), cottonseed and sunflower and safflower seeds. After the seeds are harvested, they are heated to extremely high temperatures that oxidize the fatty acids. This creates byproducts that are harmful to your health. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, and soybean oils and products made with those oils. Excess consumption of omega-6s can trigger the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals.
The author identifies several problems with seed oils:
• Eating industrial seed oils raises our omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acid ratios, with significant consequences for our health.
• Industrial seed oils are unstable and oxidize easily by heat, light and air. Polyunsaturated fats easily damaged and are bottled already oxidized – creating free radical damage. They’re not nutrient-dense and contain no Vitamin A or E, like olive oil.
• They contain harmful additives. For example, hexane is used to extract some seed oils and is often present in the final product.
• They’re derived from genetically modified crops. (My note: Most are, but it’s possible to find seed oils which are organically grown.)
• When industrial seed oils are repeatedly heated (as restaurants do in fryers), even more toxic byproducts are created. This is why eating at home and cooking your own food is much healthier.
What I’m doing
I get most of my fats from low-mercury wild-caught fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies. I get some saturated fat from using coconut oil in cooking, and monounsaturated fats from eating fresh olives and at least one small avocado a day. See article: “Eating Brain-Healthy Fats“
For further reading:
- Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease
- The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy
- How Industrial Seed Oils Are Making Us Sick
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