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Should you really be afraid of saturated fat?

This is a followup to a question Geoff Pinkus posed to me on The Livin’ Large Show on April 22, 2012 and April 29, 2012, when Geoff wanted to know if saturated fat was really dangerous.

That is a question that I get a lot, because the general public thinks that eating saturated fat is the major cause of heart disease.  The fact is eating saturated is not a cause of heart disease in and of itself, and you will not die of heart attack simply if you eat saturated fat. The story is in fact, much more complex than it seems.

As we learn more about heart disease, we are in fact learning that many of the so called healthy oils that are low in saturated fat may actually contribute to heart disease much more than saturated fat (which doesn’t seem to contribute to heart disease at all!).

But, instead of talking about the so-called healthy oils, let’s begin where the whole concept of saturated fat causing heart disease and being dangerous comes from.  It all begins after World War II and a researcher of the University of Minnesota named Ancel Keys.  Ancel Keys was a nutritionist and one of the things that he studied was starvation.  At that time, people were concerned about an epidemic of heart disease (which may have not been an epidemic after all), and so Ancel Keys set off on a quest to address what the causes of this heart disease epidemic. He noticed that atherosclerotic plaques (which actually clogs your blood vessels and cause heart attacks) were made of both saturated fat and cholesterol, and he set out to see if eating saturated fat and cholesterol actually was responsible for the development of atherosclerotic plaques. This theory, where eating fat causes heart disease, is known as the Lipid Hypothesis.

Ancel Keys

Keys subsequently did a study of 22 nations to see what they ate and how it might contribute to heart disease.  At that time, Keys’ study was the largest study of its kind.  Long story short, Ancel Keys ultimately had a very strong intuition that saturated fat and cholesterol were primarily responsible for the development of heart disease because of his experiences in Italy (where heart disease and fat consumption rates were both low). Innocent and reasonable enough, but then a fishy thing happened as Keys’ published his results.

Out of those 22 countries, he chose only to represent seven to support his hypothesis.  This has always been controversial.  He dropped nearly two thirds of the countries because if he included them it would be clear that you cannot make the statement that saturated fat and cholesterol caused heart disease.

Enter John Yudkin, a British biochemist and researcher, who was a vocal critic of Ancel Keys study. Yudkin noted that he thought it was actually sugar that was causing heart disease. He even examined the data from the 7 countries study and suggested that the association with heart disease was much stronger with sugar than saturated fat, which showed an especially weak (almost non-existant) correlation when all 22 countries were examined.

Yudkin showed that the correlation between heart disease and sugar was much stronger than cholesterol and saturated fat intake


Yudkin wrote a book in 1972 called “Pure, White and Deadly” which was kind of ignored because Keys had ultimately won the power struggle in regards to his ideas.   Now, though, we are seeing Yudkin’s theories reemerged recently in the work of Robert Lustig.

But back  to the saturated fats. The question still remains: are saturated fats bad for you?  Here is where things get a bit tricky, but stick with me, and I will get you through it so you can understand once and for all, saturated fats are pretty doggone benign and in fact, pretty healthy soucre of calories, especially in a low-carbohydrate diet free of sugar. Yes, I said healthy!

The fact of that matter is that saturated fact is not just one thing.  There are several types of saturated fats.  Short-chain saturated fats, medium-chain saturated fats, and long-chain saturated fats.  Short and  medium-chain saturated fats are actually very healthy you can find them in coconut oil and butter. Your body does not necessarily turn them into triglycerides or LDL particles (and if they do, the LDL paricles are known as ‘fluffy’ particles, that is they don’t typically stick to your artery walls).

In fact., when you eat short and medium chain saturated fatty acids, they get shunted to your liver. That is, once you eat them,  these fats get absorbed in your gut, sent to the live, and then sent to the bloodstream where they get used for energy directly by your brain and  all ofyour tissues. That is, you use those fats very efficiently.

The only saturated fat which has caused controversy is palmitic acid which is a 16-chain fatty acid.  Now how many of you eat palm oil out there?  I would guess not many. You simply cannot find it in the United States that easily, but what you can find a lot of is carbohydrates. Why is this important?  Because carbohydrates, when you overconsume them and they cannot be used for energy directly and immediately, have to be changed into fat by the liver.   Do you know what type of fat? A saturated fatty acid.  Do you know what kind of saturated fatty acid? Palmitic acid.

So sugar gets turned into the palmitic acid which appears to be a problematic saturated fatty acid.  People have been researching this fatty acid and find that it does some very strange things, such as it may promote something called leptin resistance, which means that your brain may not feel full and you may as a result, continue to overconsume carbohydrates.  Along with leptin,  palmitic acid (especially that which is made from carbohydrates and woven in VLDL particles) along with the action of insulin may all work together to make you overeat carbohydrates and store carbohydrates as fat preferentially and may be the primary cause of you being fat.

That is why it is so important to cut carbohydrates.  That is why refined sugars and flours and grains and over consumption of starch can be so toxic and this is what is really causing not only obesity but heart disease.  Obviously, the story is a bit more complex from that, and involves things like the so called healthy heart oils, stress, and others aspects of the process of inflammation (which is very complex and we are still learning a lot about it), but I just wanted to go over the story of how we came to believe saturated fat was bad for you, why it is wrong, and why you should not be afraid of saturated fat.

As a final note, one of my favorite examples is examining the nutritional content of a piece of lard. How much do think is saturated fat doe you think it has, a lot or a little?  In fact, it is very little, about 20 to 30%.

Most of lard is made out of monounsaturated fat.

“Wait, I have heard of monounsaturated fat!” you might be saying…

You probably have. It is ainolive oil .  Monounsaturated fat is a healthy fat that reduces your triglycerides level and LDL level and it is supposed to be, as result, heart healthy.

Recently and with good reason, Ancel Keys has been highly criticized  becaus although the data he collected may have be impressively gathered, the actual inferences on the data were problematic. That is the issue with science in general.  It is usually not the data that is the problem, but who interprets the data.

If John Yudkin’s interpretation of  was utilized, then the McGovern committee might have decided to make sugar rather than saturated fat public enemy number one. We may also not have the obesity crisis that we have today.

If you liked this post you also might like:

Saturated fat and skin health

Saturated fat: Quality Matters

Sugar’s disturbing history

If you liked this blogpost then don’t forget to share it with others, and if you want to hear more, you can catch me on Facebook and Twitter (@MidwestPRS) and Sunday nights on am 560 WIND on the Pinker’s show at 8pm CST. You can catch us on live radio or on, and if you miss that, we will soon be re-broadcasting the segments as podcasts.

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5 Responses to Should you really be afraid of saturated fat?

  1. Thank you, Doctor! I will share this info because everyone needs to know this. I stopped buying margarine a long time ago, after concluding natural is better. How can all those chemicals in Heart Smart actually be better for us than butter, which has nothing added? I was a fool for too long, and have turned my ship around.

  2. The Emperor has no clothes.
    This Emperor is the idea that saturated fat causes disease. Everybody in USA seems too scared to admit it.
    I have been reading many reports of trials in Europe that find SFA are associated with better heart health and PUFA (seed oils) are associated with disease.
    This makes sense, the seed oils contain omega 6 that the body converts into harmful eicosanoids. This is a word eveybody should know, these chemicals are the start of most of the diseases of the 20th century: Allergies, arthritis, diabetes?maybe?, cancer, chronic pain, heart disease, stroke etc.
    The change in the diet from SFA to more sugar/carbohydrates and seed oils may be the reason we have an epidemic of skin problems (saturated fat is vital for cell walls), heart disease, mental problems such as depression. Ye gods the brain is mainly saturated fat and omega 3 fat, the raw materials for the brain hormones are saturated fat and omega 3 fats.

    Thank you for the voice in the wilderness
    We must get the truth out

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