Saturated Fats, Part 3: A Bad Rap

Wet-rendered lard from pork fatback

by Catherine M. Haug,  January 2008; updated April 2019 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

I recently (2008) read an MSNBC online article that is well written and right on target, concerning the lies and misunderstandings about saturated fats.  It’s a fairly long article, so I’ve condensed it for my website.  Be sure to read the full article (See Sources, below).

“What if Bad Fat Isn’t So Bad? 

Subtitle: “No one’s ever proved that saturated fat clogs arteries, causes heart disease.”

(MSNBC article by Nina Teicholz; Condensed by Cat from the original article (1))

“Suppose you were forced to live on a diet of red meat and whole milk. A diet that, all told, was at least 60 percent fat — about half of it saturated. If your first thoughts are of statins and stents, you may want to consider the curious case of the Masai, a nomadic tribe in Kenya and Tanzania.

In the 1960s, a Vanderbilt University scientist named George Mann, M.D., found that Masai men consumed this very diet (supplemented with blood from the cattle they herded). Yet these nomads, who were also very lean, had some of the lowest levels of cholesterol ever measured and were virtually free of heart disease (2A).

Scientists, confused by the finding, argued that the tribe must have certain genetic protections against developing high cholesterol. But when British researchers monitored a group of Masai men who moved to Nairobi and began consuming a more modern diet, they discovered that the men’s cholesterol subsequently skyrocketed.

Similar observations were made of the Samburu — another Kenyan tribe — as well as the Fulani of Nigeria. While the findings from these cultures seem to contradict the fact that eating saturated fat leads to heart disease, it may surprise you to know that this “fact” isn’t a fact at all. It is, more accurately, a hypothesis from the 1950s that’s never been proved.”

Trio of saturated fats

“Although more than a dozen types of saturated fat exist, humans predominantly consume three: stearic acid, palmitic acid, and lauric acid. This trio comprises almost 95 percent of the saturated fat in a hunk of prime rib, a slice of bacon, or a piece of chicken skin, and nearly 70 percent of that in butter and whole milk.

Today, it’s well established that stearic acid has no effect on cholesterol levels. In fact, stearic acid — which is found in high amounts in cocoa as well as animal fat — is converted to a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid in your liver. This is the same heart-healthy fat found in olive oil. As a result, scientists generally regard this saturated fatty acid as either benign or potentially beneficial to your health.

Palmitic and lauric acid, however, are known to raise total cholesterol. But here’s what’s rarely reported: Research shows that although both of these saturated fatty acids increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, they raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol just as much, if not more. And this lowers your risk of heart disease.”

Link to Heart Disease

“Take, for example, a 2004 Harvard University study of older women with heart disease. Researchers found that the more saturated fat these women consumed, the less likely it was their condition would worsen. Lead study author Dariush Mozaffarian, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Harvard’s school of public health, recalls that before the paper was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he encountered formidable politics from other journals.

In the nutrition field, it’s very difficult to get something published that goes against  established dogma,” says Mozaffarian. “The dogma says that saturated fat is harmful, but that is not based, to me, on unequivocal evidence.” Mozaffarian says he believes it’s critical that scientists remain open minded. “Our finding was surprising to us. And when there’s a discovery that goes against what’s established, it shouldn’t be suppressed but rather disseminated and explored as much as possible.”

Biased studies

“Perhaps the apparent bias against saturated fat is most evident in studies on low-carbohydrate diets. Many versions of this approach are controversial because they place no limitations on saturated-fat intake. As a result, supporters of the diet-heart hypothesis have argued that low-carb diets will increase the risk of heart disease. But published research doesn’t show this to be the case. When people on low-carb diets have been compared head-to-head with those on low-fat diets, the low-carb dieters typically scored significantly better on markers of heart disease, including small, dense LDL cholesterol, HDL/LDL ratio, and triglycerides, which are a measure of the amount of fat circulating in your blood.

This finding is worth noting, because even though cholesterol is the most commonly cited risk factor for heart disease, triglyceride levels may be equally relevant. ”


“It could be that it’s not bad foods that cause heart disease, it’s bad habits. After all, in Volek’s study, participants who followed the low-fat diet — which was high in carbs — also decreased their triglycerides. “The key factor is that they weren’t overeating,” says Volek. “This allowed the carbohydrates to be used for energy rather than converted to fat.” Perhaps this is the most important point of all. If you consistently consume more calories than you burn, and you gain weight, your risk of heart disease will increase — whether you favor eating saturated fats, carbs, or both.”

Cat’s understanding of where Science went wrong

The following is from my 2018 article on The EssentiaList: Artificial Trans-Fats no longer Recognized as Safe.

“In fact, the well-published research that led to Ancel Keys’ 1961 declaration that saturated fats clog arteries and are the cause of heart disease, was actually done on man-made trans fats that were believed to be saturated fats. It was only the development of better methods of determining molecular structure that it was determined these were actually only partially-hydrogenated fats with a trans-structure in the carbon chain.

Most people, including doctors, are not aware that Ancel Keys’ declaration was based on false information, and continue to believe that saturated fats are bad for you. See my earlier articles: Love your Butter (2010) and Butter (and other saturated fats) is a health food! (2014), and on Cat’s Kitchen: Chemically-Altered Fats for more.

Now that the truth is out and people are becoming more aware of the truth, man-made trans fats are a thing of the past in American foods. Let’s hope that American doctors that went to medical school in the 1960s-1980s wise up too!

But other factors were also in play: politics and greed.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Big Ag invested a lot of money in owning large midwestern farms, where they grew primarily corn and soy, for production of inexpensive salad and cooking oils, and vegetable shortening for baking. They needed to create interest in these new products, not only to recover their investments, but also to increase their wealth. So they began a huge advertising campaign to promote their products.

This campaign focused not only grocery shoppers, but also on the medical community. They invested in research to prove that animal fats – especially saturated fats – were bad for you, while their corn and soy oils were good for you, based on the conclusions of Ancel Adams and other researchers of his day. They worked with the pharmaceutical companies to convince practicing physicians, and also the medical school instructors, to recommend their corn and soy oils to patients as a way to better health and avoid heart disease. They invested in research to “prove” their theories (and hid any research that proved otherwise).

To this day, physicians who started their practices in the 1970s through the 90s continue to believe the falsehoods they were taught as truths. Thankfully, those old teaching practices are being left behind, so that newer physicians know the truth.

Can I prove this? No. But I believe my observations over the decades are right. See also my article: Saturated Fats Part 2: A Big Dupe.


Author’s references within the article


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