Are saturated fats healthy or not?
The role of saturated fats in heart disease has been a controversial topic for some time. Despite earlier claims by Dr. Ancel Keys and others about the role of saturated fats in heart disease, there haven’t been any well-designed high-quality studies to show a direct link that show saturated fats from whole foods like dairy and meat are unhealthy and cause heart disease.
In fact, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, or JACC, released a revised stance on dietary saturated fats in June 2020 1 that eliminated the JACC’s previous recommendation of limiting dietary saturated fat intake. The opening statement from the JACC, “The recommendation to limit dietary saturated fatty acid (SFA) intake has persisted despite mounting evidence to the contrary.” points out how science and medicine have been slow to recognize and acknowledge the increasing body of evidence that shows no effect on rates of heart disease by lowering saturated fat intake.
The article looks back at the misguided nutrition and public health guidance over the past 40 years. During this time period, from the late 1970s and early 1980’s recommendations of eating lower levels of saturated fats were pushed forward without solid scientific evidence to support the change in guidelines.
Higher levels of saturated fat intake also does not appear to increase the small dense LDL particles that are thought to increase heart disease risk.
The real issue, as the authors of the JACC article point out, appears to be trying to assign a risk of a specific micronutrient without looking at the entire macronutrient profile of that food.
Since most foods don’t contain 100% of saturated fats, but a mixture of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, it’s important to look at the effect of the combination of fats on heart disease risk.
The authors emphatically make their point that “Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, eggs and dark chocolate are SFA-rich foods with a complex matrix that are not associated with increased risk of CVD. The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods.”
This “State-of-the-Art” review by the JACC on saturated fats follows previously publication by the American Heart Association in 2015 in their report on Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics that de-emphasized a focus on reducing saturated fat intake. This change in focus on saturated fats as “unhealthy” also appears in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans where natural fats and cholesterol were dropped from the restricted foods list.
The Diet-Heart Hypothesis has been a misguided attempt to reduce heart disease through dietary intervention with a low-fat diet. This hypothesis has had some of the largest and best-funded government studies that failed to show any definitive link between saturated fats and heart disease with over 75,000 test subjects and millions of dollars spent.
The JACC article concludes with:
“The long-standing bias against foods rich in saturated fats should be replaced with a view towards recommending diets consisting of healthy foods.”Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations JACC State-of-the-Art Review https://www.onlinejacc.org/content/76/7/844
The recommendation for a focus on healthy food diets is something I think we can all agree on, regardless of if you follow a strict vegan diet or a low-carb, ketogenic diet or even a carnivore diet. The basic foundations of these diets are to “eat healthy foods” and not demonizing a certain micronutrient like saturated fat.
It’s really the Standard American Diet (SAD) of highly processed foods with added sugars that seems to be the problem. The first step in improving the health of the public is to get them to realize the harms of a processed food diet and the significant health benefits of a whole food diet.
The JACC authors also offer some suggests on how to finally educate the public about this focus on saturated fats healthy:
“What steps could shift the bias? We suggest the following measures: 1) Enhance the public’s understanding that many foods (e.g., whole-fat dairy) that play an important role in meeting dietary and nutritional recommendations may also be rich in saturated fats. 2) Make the public aware that low-carbohydrate diets high in saturated fat, which are popular for managing body weight, may also improve metabolic disease endpoints in some individuals, but emphasize that health effects of dietary carbohydrate – just like those of saturated fat – depend on the amount, type and quality of carbohydrate, food sources, degree of processing, etc. 3) Shift focus from the current paradigm that emphasizes the saturated fat content of foods as key for health, to one that centers on specific traditional foods, so that nutritionists, dietitians, and the public can easily identify healthful sources of saturated fats. 4) Encourage committees in charge of making macronutrient-based recommendations to translate those recommendations into appropriate, culturally sensitive dietary patterns tailored to different populations.”Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations JACC State-of-the-Art Review https://www.onlinejacc.org/content/76/7/844
So hopefully this publication by the JACC will end the discussion on are saturated fats healthy or not.
Want to learn about the ketogenic diet, then check out our Ketogenic Guide for Beginners.