Saturated fat is making a comeback.
I know, I know. It’s hard to believe. After forty years of never being able to hear the term “saturated fat” without the modifier “artery-clogging”, after being told for more than four decades that saturated fat is “bad” fat that will lead to high cholesterol and heart disease, after obsessively banishing animal fats from our diet and replacing them with “healthier” fats like canola oil (insert “rolled eyes” here), the tables are finally turning, the tides are finally shifting, down is up and up is down, and in the Alice in Wonderland world of nutrition, eating fat is “in” again.
Of course, eating fat was never “out” to begin with, at least in some circles. The classic cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Weston Price Foundation director Sally Fallon and biochemist Mary Enig makes generous use of natural, traditional foods like full-fat dairy, cheese, and grass-fed meat. Atkins never swayed from his position that it was perfectly OK to eat fat and that the real problem in the American diet was sugar and starch. Researchers such as Eric Westman, M.D., at Duke and Jeff Volek, R.D., Ph.D, at the University of Connecticut have done study after study showing that higher fat / lower carb diets do none of the harm we were taught they do. Their studies show that properly done high fat diets produce a wealth of benefits including improved body composition and lower triglycerides.
And “cholesterol skeptics” like myself have argued for years that the demonization of saturated fat has been based on little more than the dual notions that 1) saturated fat “raises” cholesterol, so therefore, 2) saturated fat causes heart disease. (The first is partially true, the second is completely false. More on that in a the next paragraph.)
We now know that the effect of saturated fat on cholesterol is far more complex than we previously thought—it actually raises HDL cholesterol (which is mostly good), lowers LDLb cholesterol (which is very clearly bad) and raises LDLa cholesterol (which is pretty much neutral). So your overall cholesterol number may well go up when you consume saturated fat, but you’re actually healthier!
Furthermore, we also know that cholesterol is turning out to be a piss-poor predictor of heart disease, so the whole issue of saturated fat’s effect on cholesterol becomes kind of a moot point.
The issue of saturated fat and heart disease, however continues to be of concern to many people, but even that concern is beginning (thankfully) to fade in light of recent research. Not long ago, Patty Siri-Tarino, Ph.D., and Ronald Krauss, M.D., of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute published a seminal study that showed clearly that the amount of saturated fat people eat predicts exactly nothing about their risk of cardiovascular disease. “Intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke, nor was it associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease”, they wrote.
More recently, two separate studies, both published in the Annals of Internal Medicine —one by Rajiv Chowdhury, M.D., and one by Lydia Bazzano, M.D., Ph.D — essentially came to the same conclusion.
So does this mean you should go out and eat nothing but bacon, butter and steak?
Not so fast, grasshopper.
While saturated fat has never, in my mind, been the culprit in anything, it’s important to remember that saturated fat behaves differently in the body depending on what it’s eaten with. If you’re eating a crummy, typical American diet high in processed carbs, starches and sugars, you probably should eat a low-fat diet.
But you shouldn’t be eating that kind of diet in the first place, at least not if you care about your health.
It’s also important to remember that fat—in general—is where toxins are stored. So if you’re eating fatty animals that were raised in horrific feedlot farm conditions, cattle that was fed grains, antibiotics, steroids and other hormones, that stuff’s going to wind up in their fat, and, if you eat it, it’s going to wind up in you. So although I have zero fear of saturated fat and consume copious amounts of it in my own diet, what I do NOT consume is feedlot meat—not because of the saturated fat, but because of the steroids, antibiotics and hormones it comes with. If the only meat available to me was the crap they serve in fast food restaurants and the stuff they sell in most grocery stores, I’d probably become a vegetarian.
Fortunately, grass-fed meat—which is a health food—is becoming much more widely available. Michelle recently discovered grass-fed meat at one of our favorite stores, Target. Yup, Target When she first told me about it, I figured something had to be wrong, but a little digging revealed that the source of Target’s meat is an absolutely wonderful farm called Thousand Hills Cattle.
These guys are the real deal—they truly care about their animals and their meat, and they produce an absolutely first-rate product that tastes as good as any meat I’ve ever eaten. And it’s 100% grass-fed, not “finished” on grain, as many other “grass-fed” meats are. Kudos both to Thousand Hills farms and to Target for making it available. Yes, it’s about a buck more than crappy meat. It’s worth it ten times over.
Earlier in the article I mentioned that “properly done” high-fat diets have the potential for enormous health benefits. (I’m currently working on a book with Steven Masley, MD, on just this topic—it will be published by Harper Collins in 2016. Stay tuned.)
What do I mean by “properly done”? Here are the Cliff Notes:
If you’re eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods..
If you’re consuming plenty of vegetables, some low-sugar fruit like berries, and plenty of fiber from beans, legumes, nuts and non-starchy veggies
If you’re consuming wild (as opposed to farmed) salmon or grass-fed (as opposed to feedlot farmed) beef..
..then the amount you need to worry about the fat in your diet—including (but not limited to) saturated fat– is exactly zero.
As Walter Willet, M.D., Ph.D., the esteemed nutritional epidemiologist and head of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health has said on numerous occasions:
“The percentage of calories from fat in a diet (is not) related to any important health outcome.”