2.31 Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are mostly derived from animals, but some plant based foods have saturated fats in them such as coconuts. The term “saturated” means “holding as much as possible”. So saturated fats are those that are filled with more hydrogen and are more dense. They are solid at room temperature like lard. They raise blood cholesterol levels significantly and are strongly associated with the development of heart disease.

While there are different types of saturated fats including short chain, medium chain and long chain saturated fats, knowing the details is not critical to promote good heart health since they should all be limited or excluded as much as possible in a heart healthy diet. Having said that for completeness sake a discussion of the different types of saturated fat is below.

A well written article explaining the Seven Country Study, its major  impact implicating saturated fat as a major cause of heart disease and answering criticism about the study was published by the True Health Initiative, a non-profit collaboration of 400+ nutrition experts with various backgrounds and can be read here. While it is a long article, the conclusions at the bottom are more concise.

Saturated fats have a significant negative impact on heart health and should be limited or avoided completely. You do not need to eat ANY saturated fat to live as they are not “essential” in our diet like other nutrients can be.

Currently, it is recommended by the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Assocociation (ACC/AHA) and USDA to keep your diet low in saturated fat and replace it with the healthier unsaturated fats. The ACC/AHA recommendation is to keep 5-6% of total daily calories from saturated fat. Be careful though. Reducing saturated fats and replacing them in your diet with refined carbohydrates or too much unsaturated fat has a significant negative heart health impact. What you want to do is substitute some healthy unsaturated fats and increase other whole plant foods to get a good heart health benefit keeping the overall percentage of calories from fat in your diet as low as possible as you will see later in the HeartStrong.com program.

Considering that saturated fats predominantly come from animal based foods and for good heart health you should move as close to a 100% plant based diet as possible, saturated fat ends up not being a major concern. Especially when 100% of calories are from plants, you will likely have significantly less than 5% of calories from the harmful saturated fat.

Saturated Fat Controversy?

You may have heard on the news or from friends/family that saturated fat is not as harmful to the heart as once thought. This can not be any further from the truth. Saturated fat has major negative impacts on heart health increasing the risk of heart attack and death from heart disease. The ACC/AHA discussion about saturated fats can be read here. A total of 11 authoritative organizations including the World Health Organization have done independent reviews of research on saturated fat and all agree that saturated fats should be limited significantly.

In 2010 a “meta-analysis” was published questioning the link between saturated fat and heart disease. This analysis was criticized in methodology and was in fact…funded by the dairy and beef industry who would gain significant benefits by confusing the public about the health risks of consuming saturated fat. Then another meta-analysis was published in 2014 again questioning the link between saturated fat and heart disease. This lead to a Time Magazine front cover article titled “Eat Butter”, which encourages people to eat more saturated fat.

This is a prime reason why getting nutrition or health information from the media can be quite misleading and outright harmful. The actual conclusions of the meta-analysis were “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.” Time Magazine then interpreted that as “eat as much saturated fat as you want” and told people to increase the amount of butter they were consuming. This meta-analysis has been met with harsh scrutiny and criticism ultimately showing how the flawed statistical analysis skewed the conclusions as was well discussed by Dr. Barnard (President of Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine) and Dr. Walter Willet (Professor of  Nutrition at Harvard)1.

Bottom line: The food industry is sly and will do what it can to confuse the public regarding what is healthy and not healthy to eat for overall health. Do not get recommendations from the media and be sure to consult with a physician who specializes in nutrition before making changes in your diet.

Many foods have a small amount of saturated fat. But foods that have large amounts include:

  • Fatty dairy products (cheese/pizza, milk, butter, ice cream)
  • Meat products (beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish/seafood)
  • Eggs
  • Grain based deserts (cookies, cake, pastries, donuts)
  • Coconut and palm oil

Food labels will tell you how many calories are from saturated fat:

Our goal is to get our saturated fat intake to be as low as we possibly can. Eating high amounts of saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels which significantly increases heart disease risk. Here is a list of foods and their saturated fat content:

  1. Barnard ND, Willett WC, Ding EL. The Misuse of Meta-analysis in Nutrition Research. JAMA. Published online September 18, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.12083

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