Are Saturated Fats Really All That Bad?

This is an epic post of mine from the old Advanced Mediterranean Diet blog, originally dated July 6, 2009.  That was a watershed year for me because of the ideas in this article.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about saturated fats. Weird, huh?

No saturated fat in grapes

The American Heart Association recommends that Americans limit the amount of saturated fats they eat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 140 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 16 grams of saturated fats.

In over two decades of clinical practice, I’ve never run across a patient willing to do that calculation. Not many physicians could tell you the “seven percent rule.”

One of the two major themes of Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is that dietary saturated fats are not particularly harmful to our health, if at all. From what I’ve been taught, this is sacrilegious. “Saturated fats are a major cause of heart disease and strokes,” I’ve heard and read over and over. In brief, this is the Diet-Heart Hypothesis or the “lipid hypothesis”: Dietary saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol are directly related to coronary heart disease and other forms of atherosclerosis (aka hardening of the arteries).

In his review of Taubes’ book, Dr. George Bray didn’t even address Taubes’ point about saturated fats, writing instead, “read and decide for yourself.”

That started me thinking either that the Diet-Heart Hypothesis is indefensible or that Dr. Bray is lazy. I don’t think he’s lazy. Dr. Bray is a Grand High Pooh-Bah in the fields of obesity and nutrition.

The American Heart Association in 1957 recommended that polyunsaturated fats replace saturated fats.

U.S. public health recommendations in 1977 were to reduce fat intake to 30% of total calories to lower the risk of coronary heart disease. Slowly, some fats were replaced mostly with carbohydrates, highly refined ones at that. This shift tends to raise triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol levels, which may themselves contribute to atherosclerosis. Current recommendations are, essentially, to keep saturated fatty acids as low as possible.

One concern about substituting carbohydrates for fats is that blood sugar levels rise, leading to insulin release from the pancreas, in turn promoting growth of fat tissue and potentially leading to weight gain. Some believe that the public health recommendation to reduce total fat (which led to higher carbohydrate intake) is the reason for the dramatic rise in overweight and diabetes we’ve seen over the last 30 years.

Note that if intake of saturated fats is inadequate, our bodies can make the saturated fats it needs from carbohydrates. These are generally the same saturated fats that are present in dietary fats of animal origin. The only exceptions are the two essential fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid.

Why would saturated fats be harmful? Apparently because they raise blood levels of cholesterol (including LDL cholesterol – “bad cholesterol”), which is thought to be a cause of atherosclerosis, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. I don’t recall seeing any mention of a direct toxic effect of saturated fats (or fatty acids) on arterial walls, where the rubber meets the road. (Saturated fats are broken down in the small intestine to glycerol and fatty acids.)

Dietary saturated fats also raise HDL cholesterol – “good cholesterol” – although not to the degree they raise LDL.

You needed a break

Let’s not forget many other factors that cause, contribute to, or predict coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis: smoking, family history, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, oxidative stress, homocysteine level, systemic inflammation, high-glycemic index diets, C-reactive protein, lack of exercise, and others. I discussed dietary factorsin my April 14, 2009, blog post.

Often overlooked in discussion of dietary fat effects is the great variability of response to fats among individuals. Response can depend on genetics, sex, fitness level, overweight or not, types of carbohydrates eaten, amount of total dietary fat, etc. And not all saturated fats affect cholesterol levels.

Many of the journal articles listed as references below support the idea that the link between dietary saturated fats and coronary heart disease is not strong, and may be nonexistent. Read them and you’ll find that:

  • Some studies show no association between dietary saturated fats and coronary heart disease.
  • Some studies associate lower rates of coronary heart disease with higher saturated fat intake.
  • Higher saturated fat intake was associated with less progression of coronary atherosclerosis in women.
  • Lowering saturated fat intake did not reduce total or coronary heart disease mortality.

“Read and decide for yourself,” indeed. I think you’ll begin to question the reigning dogma.

For example, here’s a conclusion from the Hooper article (from 2001):

In this review we have tried to separate out whether changes in individual fatty acid fractions are responsible for any benefits to health (using the technique of meta-regression). The answers are not definitive, the data being too sparse to be convincing. We are left with a suggestion that less total fat or less of any individual fatty acid fraction in the diet is beneficial.

And a conclusion of the J.B. German article:

At this time [2004], research on how specific saturated fatty acids contribute to coronary artery disease and on the role each specific saturated fatty acid play in other health outcomes is not sufficient to make global recommendations for all persons to remove saturated fats from their diet. No randomized clinical trials of low-fat diets or low-saturated fat diets of sufficient duration have been carried out; thus, there is a lack of knowledge of how low saturated fat intake can be without the risk of potentially deleterious health outcomes.

Zarraga and Schwartz (2006) conclude:

Numerous studies have been conducted to help provide dietary recommendations for optimal cardiovascular health. The most compelling data appear to come from trials that tested diets rich in fruits, vegetables, MUFAs [monounsaturated fatty acids], and PUFAs [polyunsaturated fatty acids], particularly the n-3 PUFAs. In addition, some degree of balance among various food groups appears to be a more sustainable behavioral practice than extreme restriction of a particular food group.

Here’s another of my favorite quotes on this topic, from the J.B. German article:

If saturated fatty acids were of no value or were harmful to humans, evolution would probably not have established within the mammary gland the means to produce saturated fatty acids . . . that provide a source of nourishment to ensure the growth , development, and survival of mammalian offspring.

Take-Home Points

The connection between dietary saturated fat and coronary heart disease is weak.

I may be excommunicated from the medical community for uttering this. You won’t hear it from most physicians or dietitians. They don’t have time to spend 80 hours on this topic, so they stick with the party line. And maybe I’m wrong anyway.

The scientific community is slowly moving away from the original Diet-Heart/Lipid Hypothesis. It is being replaced with stronger anti-atherosclerosis theories that promote:

  • fruit and vegetable intake
  • whole grain intake
  • low-glycemic index eating
  • increased consumption of plant oils and fish
  • moderate intake of nuts
  • ? moderate intake of low-fat diary (e.g., DASH diet) (less consensus on this point)

So, saturated fats and dietary cholesterol are being crowded out of the picture, or ignored. In many cases, saturated fats have literally been replaced by poly- and monounsaturated fats (plant oils). Several clinical studies indicate that’s a healthy change, but it may be related more to the healthfulness of the plant oils than to detrimental effects of saturated fats.

The original Diet-Heart Hypothesis won’t die until the American Heart Association and U.S. public health agencies put a gun to its head and pull the trigger. That will take another 10 years or more.

If you want to hedge your bets, go ahead and limit your saturated fat intake. It probably won’t hurt you. It might help a wee bit. By the same token, I’m not going on an all-meat and cheese, ultra-high-saturated fat diet; I don’t want to miss out on the healthy effects of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and low-glycemic index carbohydrates. Some would throw red wine into the mix. This “prudent diet” reflects what I hereby christen The 21st Century Diet-Heart Hypothesis.

If you’re worried about coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis, spend less time counting saturated fat grams, and more time on other risk-reducing factors: diet modification as above, get regular exercise, control your blood pressure, achieve a healthy weight, and don’t smoke. More bang for the buck.

What do you think?

Steve Parker, M.D.

Disclaimer: All matters regarding your health require supervision by a personal physician or other appropriate health professional familiar with your current health status. Always consult your personal physician before making any dietary or exercise changes.

Selected References Contradicting or Questioning the Diet-Heart Hypothesis (updated December 17, 2014):

Puaschitz, Nathalie, et al. Dietary Intake of Saturated Fat Is Not Associated With Risk of Coronary Events Or Mortality In Patients With Established Coronary Artery Disease. Journal of Nutrition, Feb. 1, 2015. First published online Dec. 10, 2014. doi: 10.3945/jn.114203505. The title of the article says it all. A strong majority (81%) of the 2412 study participants were men, so I’m not sure the results apply to women.

Chowdhury, Rajiv, et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysisAnnals of Internal Medicine 2014;160(6):398-406-406. doi:10.7326/M13-1788  The conclusion of this meta-analysis: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

Ramsden, Christopher, et al.  Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis.  British Medical Journal 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8707 (Published 5 February 2013). Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:e8707  (Almost 500 middle-aged men with a recent coronary event were followed over time.  Those who substituted saturated fat with omega-6 fatty acid (polyunsaturated fatty acid, mostly linoleic acid) had higher death rates (cardiac and overall deaths) than those who continued their habitual diet.)  Also see editorial by Philip Calder in the same issue.

Astrup, A., et al (including Ronald Krause, Frank Hu, and Walter Willett). The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93 (2011): 684-688.  (The authors believe that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (but not carbohydrates) can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). For the last four decades, low-fat diets replaced fat with carbohydates. So they believe saturated fatty acids cause CHD or polyunsaturated fatty acids prevent it. I see no mention of total fat intake in this article written by major names in nutritional epidemiology and lipid metabolism. “In countries following a Western diet, replacing 1% of energy intake from saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids has been associated with a 2–3% reduction in the incidence of CHD.” “Furthermore, the effect of particular foods on CHD cannot be predicted solely by their content of total saturated fatty acids because individual saturated fatty acids may have different cardiovascular effects and major saturated fatty acid food sources contain other constituents that could influence coronary heart disease risk.”)  A Feb. 19, 2012, press release from the Harvard School of Public Health covered much of the same ground. It’s titled “Time to Stop Talking About Low-Fat, say HSPH Nutrition Experts.”

Siri-Tarino, Patty, et al. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 13, 2010. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725

Skeaff, C. Murray and Miller, Jody. Dietary fat and coronary heart disease: Summary of evidence from prospective cohort and randomised controlled trials. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 55 (2009): 173-201.

Halton, Thomas, et al. Low-carbohydrate-diet score and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. New England Journal of Medicine, 355 (2006): 1,991-2,002.

German, J. Bruce, and Dillard, Cora J. Saturated fats: What dietary intake? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80 (2004): 550-559.

Ravnskov, U. The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 51 (1998): 443-460.

Ravsnskov, U. Hypothesis out-of-date. The diet-heart idea. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 55 (2002): 1,057-1,063.

Ravnskov, U, et al. Studies of dietary fat and heart disease. Science, 295 (2002): 1,464-1,465.

Taubes, G. The soft science of dietary fat. Science, 291 (2001): 2535-2541.

Zarraga, Ignatius, and Schwartz, Ernst. Impact of dietary patterns and interventions on cardiovascular health. Circulation, 114 (2006): 961-973.

Mente, Andrew, et al. A Systematic Review of the Evidence Supporting a Causal Link Between Dietary Factors and Coronary Heart Disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (2009): 659-669.

Parikh, Parin, et al. Diets and cardiovascular disease: an evidence-based assessment. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 45 (2005): 1,379-1,387.

Bray, G.A. Review of Good Calories, Bad Calories. Obesity Reviews, 9 (2008): 251-263. Reproduced at the Protein Power website of Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades.

Hooper, L., et al. Dietary fat intake and prevention of cardiovascular disease: systematic review. British Medical Journal, 322 (2001): 757-763.

Weinberg, W.C. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: a critique. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 43 (2004): 731-733.

Mozaffarian, Darius, et al. Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80 (2004): 1,175-1,184.

Related editorial: Knopp, Robert and Retzlaff, Barbara. Saturated fat prevents coronary artery disease? An American paradox. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80 (2004): 1.102-1.103.

Yusuf, S., et al. Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study. Lancet, 364 (2004): 937-952. (ApoB/ApoA1 ratio was a risk factor for heart attack, so dietary saturated fat may play a role if it affects this ratio.)

Hu, Frank. Diet and cardiovascular disease prevention: The need for a paradigm shift. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 50 (2007): 22-24.  (Dr. Hu de-emphasizes the original diet-heart hypothesis, noting instead that “. . . reducing dietary GL [glycemic load] should be made a top public health priority.:)

Oh, K., et al. Dietary fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease in women: 20 years of follow-up of the Nurses’ Health Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 161 (2005): 672-679.

Parker, Steve. Time to abandon the diet-heart hypothesis? Advanced Mediterranean Diet Blog, May 1, 2009.

Parker, Steve. New study confirms the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Advanced Mediterranean Diet Blog, April 14, 2009. (Examination of the Mente study listed above.)

Selected References Supporting the Diet-Heart Hypothesis (by no means exhaustive)

Ascherio, A. Epidemiologic studies on dietary fats and coronary heart disease. American Journal of Medicine, 113 (supplement) (2002): 9S-12S.

Griel, Amy and Kris-Etherton, Penny. Beyond saturated fat: The importance of the dietary fatty acid profile on cardiovascular disease. Nutrition Reviews, 64 (2006): 257-262.  (Primarily a response to the Mozaffarian article above.)

Erkkila, Arja, et al. Dietary fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: An epidemiological approach. Progress in Lipid Research, 47 (2008): 172-187.