Dietary fats are greatly misunderstood. Most people don’t know which are healthful and which are harmful. Some people shun or limit all of them, while others make fatty foods the focus of their diet. Of all the fats, saturated fats may be among the most misunderstood of all. They’re found in red and processed meats, dairy, and eggs. For decades we’ve been warned that eating them would lead to heart disease. That’s when many people switched from eating butter (saturated) to using vegetable oils and margarines (polyunsaturated).
What happened next was unexpected.
A study appeared in the British Medical Journal that examined the results of the Sydney Diet Heart Study (SDHS). The SDHS is a randomized, controlled trial comparing the rates of heart disease in people who replaced saturated fats with safflower oil (omega-6 fats). “An increase of 5% of food energy from omega-6 PUFAs predicted a 35% and 29% higher risk of cardiovascular death and all-cause mortality, respectively.” The study concluded that polyunsaturated fats were more harmful than saturated fats. Still, the majority of people believe that saturated fats should be limited and unsaturated fats increased. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Flavia, a friend of mine, has been a vegetarian most of her life. But when she discovered that she was gluten-intolerant, she decided to bring small amounts of meat back into her diet to give herself more protein options. Most of the times when we ate out, she ordered something with saturated fat like lamb or beef. The first time she ordered a steak, Flavia looked a little guilty for choosing to eat something she had come to believe was harmful. Now she knows better and enjoys an occasional food high in saturated fat. Today, I’d like to erase any guilt you may have around eating a little butter or eggs. You can eat an occasional burger without feeling that you’re compromising your diet, because recent studies like the SDHS found that for many people, reducing saturated fats actually increases the risk for heart disease. That’s right. Unsaturated fats can be harmful, while saturated fats can actually be protective.
When it began
The myth surrounding the dangers of saturated fats began in the late 1950s when margarine and shortening producers believed saturated fats to be responsible for an epidemic of heart attacks. They were wrong. It continued into the 1970s when a single study found a correlation between heart disease and cholesterol. This, in turn, correlated with the percentage of calories that came from saturated fats. “But correlation is not causation,” says Aseem Malhotra, a London cardiology specialist.
Recent studies have failed to find a significant association between saturated fats and heart disease. The National Institutes of Health tried to demonstrate a connection between eating saturated fat and heart disease. In fact, they spent several hundred millions of dollars on these studies. They could find no such connection. Still, we’re told to reduce all fats to 30% of our calories, and limit our intake of saturated fats to just 10%. It turns out that saturated fats – the fats from animals (meats, eggs, and dairy) – are not the nutritional culprits we’ve been led to believe they are.
The main problem with a diet high in saturated fats is that it’s proportionately lower in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts – all components of a healthful diet. It’s not the saturated fats that are the problem, but the nutrients they displace.
How they’re protective
You may not have known this, but saturated fat surrounds your heart. It’s your heart’s preferred fuel. When you’re under stress – and who isn’t these days? – your heart draws from this reserve of fatty acids to give you energy. So saturated fatty acids can be an immediate source of energy.
In addition, we all know the importance of getting enough vitamins A, D, K, and E in our foods and supplements. You need enough of these fat-soluble vitamins to convert a number of chemicals into a useable form. But without sufficient saturated fats, you can’t utilize many of these important vitamins and minerals. The fat-soluble vitamins in your diet and supplements are useless unless you include them in a diet containing some saturated fats.
That’s not all. Saturated fats protect you from osteoporosis as well. It’s not enough to get sufficient calcium. Something is needed to utilize it, and this “something” is saturated fats. You need them to carry calcium into your bones. This is why Mary Enig, PhD, one ofthe world’s experts on dietary fats, has said that at least 50% of your dietary fat intake should be saturated. And it’s why I advocate eating full fat yogurt and butter instead of fat-free yogurt and margarine. You don’t need to eat huge amounts of saturated fats. The key is balance. A single serving of dietary saturated fats a day should give you the protection your body needs.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat
It’s also a myth that high fat foods cause weight gain. In 1956, a study on obesity, published in The Lancet, compared diets that were 90% protein with those that were 90% fat or 90% carbohydrate. The most weight loss was found in the group eating the most fat. One problem with this diet is that it doesn’t leave room for healthful nutrient-dense foods like antioxidants and minerals. The issue isn’t whether or not a diet high in saturated fats is healthful or harmful. It has more to do with the other foods you eat along with fats. Carbohydrates, especially refined ones like cookies, white flour, and sugar will contribute to weight gain, not egg yolks.
A strong immune system
Your immune system needs saturated fats. Some of them have antifungal qualities, like lauric acid and caprylic acid and are used to reduce colonies of Candida albicans. Butter and coconut oil are both high in two saturated fats: myristic acid and lauric acid. If your white blood cells don’t have enough of these fatty acids, it becomes more difficult for them to recognize and destroy viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Feeding your brain
Your brain is mostly a mixture of cholesterol and saturated fats – substances that the majority of people are trying to reduce. That’s not smart. You’ve no doubt heard that the brain needs omega-3 fatty acids like those that come from fish and walnuts. Well, omega-3s can’t be utilized without enough saturated fat. A diet that’s low in saturated fats doesn’t have the raw materials your brain needs to function optimally.
In addition, hormone production needs saturated fats. The bottom line is that a fat-free or low-fat diet will not only prevent weight loss, it keeps you from utilizing healthful vitamin-rich foods.
What about your heart? Saturated fat helps increase your HDL (healthy) cholesterol and lower your Lp(a) (bad) cholesterol. In fact, since there are no drugs that lower your Lp(a), you need to be on a diet high in saturated fat to get the needed balance of good to bad cholesterol.
British Medical Journal, February 5, 2013.
Leas, Connie, Fat: It’s Not What You Think, Prometheus Books, 2008.