By. Garrett Guzman
Did you know?
“The diet-heart hypothesis has been tested more than any other in the history of nutrition, and thus far, the results have been null.” – Nina Teicholz, Author of The Big Fat Surprise
Saturated Fat is Wrongly Accused!
With the re-introduction of the ketogenic diet and the vegan diet, there has been a considerable emphasis placed on the role of animal products (meat, fish, dairy, etc.) as a part of one’s nutrition. I use the term “re-introduction” because these diet philosophies have been around for decades, yet they both have regained popularity in the past several years. One diet has a heavy emphasis on animal products (ketogenic diet, while an even stricter version includes the latest trend of the carnivore ketogenic diet) while the other eliminates all animal products (vegan). It is true that saturated fats are mostly found within animal products, but they can also be found within the plant kingdom, specifically in coconut products, palm kernel oil, and dark chocolate. That being said, a considerable amount of the saturated fats that Americans, and most individuals worldwide, currently consume are found within animal products. The question arises, time and time again, is saturated fat truly bad for me? Let’s take a look at how this theory (or rather myth) developed and the growing body of research that puts it to rest.
The Original Lipid Hypothesis
While there were researchers before him, Ancel Keys gets the majority of credit for developing the lipid hypothesis, which stated that the greater one’s saturated fat intake, the greater one's cholesterol levels, and therefore the greater one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. In the 1950s, he created the Seven Countries Study, which was an epidemiological longitudinal study conducted through the University of Minnesota. If you dive deeper into his work, you would find that Keys never gave attention to many other health and lifestyle factors that dramatically increased one’s chances of heart disease, which included being overweight/obese, smoking, elevated blood pressure, and lack of physical activity. In addition, which we now know to be grievous errors on his part, Keys did not consider trans-fat consumption (which peaked in 1960) and did not fully complete the portion of the study that sugar may play a role in heart disease (1). Even in that day, Keys theory was met with a considerable amount of skepticism. And today, the research is stacking up against him.
A Different Lipid Hypothesis
With more research being done in this area every day, we now know that there are many other markers to consider outside of total cholesterol in lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Perhaps most important are high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL, with a special attention paid to LDL particle size), Lipoprotein (a) or Lp (a), triglycerides, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (HS-CRP), homocysteine, fasting glucose, and fasting insulin. These tests will give us an in-depth look into one's true risk of cardiovascular disease, in addition to many other chronic diseases.
What eating pattern works to most favorably improve these blood markers? Well, it’s not a low saturated fat diet. In fact, saturated fat (in and of itself) either improves or maintains all of these blood markers. Some folks will say that LDL is increased with a greater consumption of saturated fat (while this is actually rarely seen in the research), which would increase one’s chances of cardiovascular disease. However, if you truly study the research, you’ll find that saturated fat not only increases HDL, but it also shifts the LDL particle size from small, dense LDL to large, fluffy LDL, which have been shown to decrease one’s overall risk of heart disease (2).
Well then, what diet would therefore increase my likelihood of cardiovascular disease? Check out our next blog post for this answer.
1. Lustig, Robert H. Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Avery, 2013.
2. Siri-Tarino, PW et al. (2010). Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr, 91 (3): 502-9. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26285