Saturated fat has a long and complicated history, especially in regards to heart health. While some authorities still claim that saturated fat is the primary culprit behind cardiovascular disease, many researchers beg to differ.
As polarizing of a subject as it is, it appears that saturated fat may have just gotten a massive vote of confidence from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Let’s dig into what saturated fat is all about, and the new information that may finally be turning the tide for this often vilified nutrient.
Several different types of fat can be found in the foods that you eat. While many people have historically put unsaturated fatty acids on a pedestal, saturated fats have developed an unjustly bad reputation.
Saturated fat is a type of fat that is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. This saturation results in a more solid, less fluid type of fat; think butter as opposed to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like fish oil and olive oil.
Contrary to what many people believe, saturated fat is essential for a number of health and maintenance activities in your body. Some examples include:
- Creating the integrity of your cell membranes, which helps to keep your vital cell parts safe while shielding unwanted molecules from entering the cell[*].
- Assisting immunity by carrying out antimicrobial activity[*].
- Supporting lung health as an essential component of pulmonary surfactant[*].
- Providing a source of fuel for your body[*].
Saturated fats are primarily found in animal foods, with a few exceptions in the plant world, such as coconut and palm oil.
Animal sources of saturated fat include:
- Dairy (butter, cheese, milk)
- Red meat (beef, lamb, etc.)
- Chicken, turkey
During the 70s, several correlational studies came out showing a connection between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
An important note here: correlation does not imply causation. A correlation study shows that there was a correlation between two factors, but it does not prove that one factor caused the other.
Correlational findings are typically the grounds for more research. These types of outcomes allow researchers to develop a new study where they can narrow down the causative factors further by creating controls and placebo groups that take into account lifestyle and other potential confounding factors.
Unfortunately, this was not the case in the 1970s when it came to saturated fat and heart disease. For some reason, researchers and the American Heart Association (AHA) went straight to vilifying saturated fat and warning against consuming foods high in saturated fat like meat and dairy.
Over the years, the exploration has continued into the role of saturated fat in heart disease, and new perspectives have emerged.
While research has shown repeatedly that the link between heart disease and saturated fat is weak at best, health authorities have been slow to adopt this information and extend it to the public in the form of new recommendations.
Recently, however, the JACC (Journal of the American College of Cardiology) came out with a statement recommending new guidelines be put in place that reflect the mounting evidence that saturated fat is not the cause of heart disease.
The JACC is a peer-reviewed medical journal covering all aspects of research on the topic of cardiovascular disease. This statement marks a significant advancement in the vindication of saturated fat, and brings hope for the future of nutritional guidelines as we put our fat-fearing past behind us.
To quote the JACC directly, “Most recent meta-analyses of randomized trials and observational studies found no beneficial effects of reducing SFA intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) and total mortality, and instead found protective effects against stroke[*].”
The paper goes on to highlight two key concepts related to saturated fat intake:
#1 Not All Cholesterol Is Created Equally
One of the major red flags that scientists back in the 1970s waved was the correlation between saturated fat intake and cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a woefully misunderstood compound, with many different shapes and sizes that can either improve health or detract from it. It’s understood that excess cholesterol can build up in your arteries, and potentially lead to atherosclerosis (a form of heart disease).
What most people don’t talk about, however, is that the correlation between heart disease and cholesterol is much more strongly related to small, dense LDL particles, as opposed to the larger LDL particles that are typically associated with saturated fat intake[*].
This misunderstanding has led to recommendations that unduly demonize both saturated fat and cholesterol.
#2 Overall Macronutrient Distribution Of Foods Must Be Considered
Another key concept that the JACC highlights is the fact that foods are complex systems of macro and micronutrients. The overall nutritional value of a food must be taken into account when discussing whether a food is health-promoting or health-detracting.
They go on to note that “Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, eggs, and dark chocolate are SFA-rich (saturated fat-rich) foods with a complex matrix that are not associated with increased risk of CVD.”
To suggest that people need to avoid specific foods altogether due to one nutritional component negates the myriad of health benefits that could be offered by a diet rich in a variety of whole foods.
The long-held story that fat is bad for you is slowly unwinding as research continues to unveil the truth about dietary fat and heart disease.
Luckily, we already have the data to show what happens when American’s reduce their fat intake in the name of health.
Following the trials that led to the AHA’s recommendation to limit saturated fat, many people in the U.S. began adopting a low-fat diet. The result? from 1988 to 2008, the number of people in the United States that were obese doubled[*].
This plays directly into the incidence of heart disease, as obesity is linked to several factors that increase the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke[*].
This new statement by the JACC provides hope that the health authorities are doing their due diligence when examining research in an effort to create guidelines for the health of Americans. At the very least, it is a significant step in the right direction.