Ever since reading Nina Planck's Real Food changed my mind (and diet) about the supposed evils of naturally occurring saturated fat six years ago, I've been engaged in a ongoing and extremely frustrating argument with whoever dares to battle, in favour of fat (be it saturated or otherwise) over chemical ridden, carrageenan filled fat-free alternatives. And I don't just mean polyunsaturated fat, the undisputed lady-of-the-hour given all the current research energy devoted to omega-3 and all her health benefits, I'm talking saturated fat. Butter. Coconut oil. Lard.
Saturated fat consumption & heart disease
One of the most popular and apparently near impossible arguments to let go of is that saturated fat causes heart disease - how about some solid research to help debunk that myth? A meta-analysis published in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition aimed to summarize evidence available on the association between high saturated fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and cardiovascular disease (CVD) in prospective epidemiological studies. These studies followed nearly 350,000 patients for an average of 14 years, about 11,000 of whom developed CHD or stroke and concluded that there was no significant relationship between intake of saturated fat and development of cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, the pooled relative risk ratio of saturated fat intake to CVD development was 1.0, indicating that the patients who ate saturated fat were no more or less likely to develop CVD.
Now where did we get the idea that saturated fat was bad for the heart? Research, right? The studies analyzed in this paper that showed beneficial effects of reduced saturated fat diets replaced saturated fat intake with polyunsaturated fats, shown elsewhere to be anti-inflammatory and beneficial for cardiovascular health notwithstanding saturated fat intake. The analysis also elucidates what appears to be a possible publication bias towards studies with favourable results - a somewhat startling and common issue in medical science research.
Wait but won't eating saturated fats raise my cholesterol and THEN give me heart disease?
Cholesterol and it's effects is one misunderstood beast of a medical problem. In fact, I'm almost dreading getting into it because the fight to understand what's really going on continues to be a challenge for me. What we are really trying to do here is de-vilify saturated fat, so a brief explanation of how these two things came to be thought of as related is in order. According to the academics (namely Ph.Dr's Chris Masterjohn & Stephen Guyenet) who've made their personal crusade the elucidation of the relationship between dietary fat and its effects on health, there is, in short, no current, reliable evidence to support a relationship between saturated fat in the diet and increased cholesterol. According to them, the studies perpetually cited are the same short-term, intervention trials rather than looking at longer-term prospective and observational trials, which might lend better insight to whether or not saturated fat is having an impact on lipoproteins LDL and/or HDL, and thus cholesterol as we tend to look at it.
But what's so bad about cholesterol anyways? We definitely need it as a building block for important hormones, to modulate cell membrane fluidity and to help us digest fats through conversion to bile in the gallbladder. Our understanding of cholesterol's role in heart health and associated causes of mortality is in flux - by that I mean, medical practices haven't seemed to catch up entirely to what has come out in research. For example, oxidized-LDL likely constitutes a much larger risk-factor for atherosclerosis than the total-LDL number measured on your lipids panel. And where does this oxidized-LDL come from? Maybe scrambled eggs (that's a great interview with Dr. Alan Gaby, MD)...
Sadly, removing saturated fats from your diet is not the easy fix for preventing heart disease. Like everything else, there's not really an easy fix, but there are definitely things you can do, even if you've already been diagnosed. For starters, eat a balanced diet - and when I say 'balanced diet' what I really mean one that is full of what has now commonly become known as 'whole foods', a.k.a. foods that are not made in a factory, not loaded with preservatives so they stay 'good' for 2 years at a time, without a nutrition label that contains 10+ ingredients, without anything in that ingredients list you didn't realize was considered food (e.g. potassium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, methyl paraben). Give your body some exercise and the nutrients it needs - fat-soluble vitamins from grass-fed beef, omega-3's from cold water fish, and anti-oxidants from a variety of fruits and vegetables, to nourish, decrease inflammation and deal with the oxidized cholesterol slinking around in your body and causing damage to your precious arteries.