What is the truth about saturated fats?

What is the truth about saturated fats?


“Butter doesn’t increase risk of heart disease after all” STAT

“Heart disease: Consuming too much saturated fat may raise risk” MNT

The titles of these two articles, both published this year, best sum up the positions of some of the world’s most eminent doctors, dieticians and researchers in what has become a perennial debate over fats. Is it any wonder people are confused as to what to eat?

How did we reach this point?

In March 2014, an article entitled “Association of Dietary, Circulating and Supplement Fatty Acids with Coronary Risk” published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that eating less saturated fat doesn’t lower a person’s risk for heart disease. “Butter is Back” is how it was reported in The New York Times, but perhaps more importantly this report marked a decisive moment in a ‘Fat War’ that had raged within the medical community for almost a century, while also marking a major reversal for the position of the proponents of the low-fat diet that helped make sugar today’s most reviled nutritional demon.

So, when it was reported last week on November 24 that new research reveals that consuming high levels of four major saturated fats – such as those found in butter, lard, red meat, dairy fat, and palm oil – may raise the risk of coronary heart disease, this was an anti-saturated fat fightback worthy of Rocky Balboa. The study, led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, was published in The BMJ, with Senior author Qi Sun, assistant professor in the School’s Department of Nutrition, reported as saying the findings “strongly corroborate what the current USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend.”

Where does this leave us?

Fat is essential for survival. We need fat for normal growth and development, absorption of certain vitamins (A, D, E, K and carotenoids), maintaining cell membrane and providing a cushion for our organs. We also need fat to keep our skin and hair healthy.

The two essential fatty acids linolenic acid and linoleic acid cannot be made by the body and so must be obtained through plant-based foods where they are then used to build specialised fats omega-3 and omega-6. Additionally, the metabolism and digestion of protein can only be achieved in the presence of fat.

The fact remains there are three types of fat, and no matter the outcome of the current battle in the fat war, two of them will most likely remain recommended to be consumed, the question will be judgement as to how much.

  1. Unsaturated fats – found in amongst others olive oil, avocados and nuts. Unsaturated fats should comprise most of our daily fat intake. They come in two main forms – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6) are important in the normal function of tissues in the body. They also aid in the protection against heart disease and could decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. Monounsaturated fats can aid in improving blood cholesterol and may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control.
  2. Saturated fat – found in meat, dairy products, lard and butter. Now the research around saturated fats and the risk of heart disease has once again become contested, the sensible approach would seem to be a moderate level of consumption.
  3. Trans-fats – found in processed foods, fried foods, baked foods and margarine. Previously, in the same research that examined and exonerated saturated fats it appeared that trans-fat consumption was associated with 34% increase in all-cause mortality. Trans-fats have also been linked with the risk of heart disease. Thus, I continue to avoid trans-fats and suggest they only be eaten rarely if at all.
So, what should we eat?

Well, first, what we don’t need is a re-run of the last fifty years of mistakes with general recommendations to cut down on fat intake. This helped lead us to our current obesity problems, when by trying to cut out fat, or take the ‘low-fat’ route, saturated fat ended up being replaced with refined carbohydrates (think sugar). This simply replaced one troublesome item with another.

It has been reported that in an editorial accompanying the study, Canadian experts Russell de Souza and Sonia Anand say the main message is that it is the overall pattern of one’s diet that matters to health, with it important to aim for a general healthy diet, rather than focus on specific nutrients, because “dietary patterns might be more consistent with how people consume nutrients, and these patterns can predict heart disease risk.”

In practice this means we should embrace variety and balance, focusing on real food in our eating habits; lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, poultry and fish, not forgetting a daily probiotic for gut health. Too much processed food, including processed meat, sugary breakfast cereals, lots of white bread, potatoes and sugary drinks – this is a diet that people should spend more time worrying about than the precise position of relevant experts in the saturated fat debate.

Ultimately a healthy diet is about eating foods that are good for you. This doesn’t mean they can’t taste great, but it may require an open mind to move away from some more destructive and addictive processed foods to try ‘foods with benefits’. Foods that provide our body with nutrition, not just energy; that help boost our immune system, as well as helping us to avoid becoming overweight and increasing our risk of inflammation and chronic disease.

Such food will contain fats as well as sugar. The key is keeping it real. The more real food we consume, the better for us.



This is another area of continued contention, a great deal of debate as to how certain vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated fats react when used for cooking at high temperatures. This is a link to an excellent article on the BBC website and is worth a read if you are concerned:  It reports on scientific testing of relevant fats and provides the results.

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          About the author

Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine and a dedicated campaigner for real food. Having researched food since 2009 she believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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