Is Saturated Fat Healthy?

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woman cooking with recipe on her ipadIt’s probably the one thing that prevents people from fully buying into the Primal Blueprint. Almost anyone can agree with the basic tenets – eating more vegetables, choosing only clean, organic meats, and getting plenty of sleep and exercise is fairly acceptable to the mainstream notion of good nutrition. The concept of Grok and a lifestyle based on evolutionary biology can be a harder sell, but anyone who’s familiar with (and accepts) the basics of human evolution tends to agree (whether they follow through and adopt the lifestyle is another question), at least intellectually. But saturated fat? People have this weird conditioned response to the very phrase.

“But what about all that saturated fat? Aren’t you worried about clogging up your arteries?”

In fact, “saturated fat” isn’t just that; it’s often “artery-clogging saturated fat.” Hell, a Google search for that exact phrase in quotations produces tens of thousands of entries. Most doctors toe the company line and roundly condemn it, while the media generally follows suit. The public, unsurprisingly, laps it up from birth. The result is a deeply ingrained systemic assumption that saturated fat is evil, bad, dangerous, and sinful, a preconceived notion that precludes any meaningful dialogue from taking place. Everyone “knows” that saturated fat clogs your arteries—that’s treated as a given—and attempting to even question that assumption gets you lumped in the crazy category. After all, if you start from such a “fundamentally incorrect position,” how can the rest of your argument be trusted?

What is Saturated Fat, Exactly?

A fatty acid molecule is typically an arrangement of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats have two main characteristics:

  • All or most of the carbon-hydrogen bonds are single bonds
  • All available carbon bonds are paired with hydrogen atoms

This makes saturated fats highly stable and resistant to oxidation and rancidity, even when heated. That’s why our bodies tend to build cellular membranes with a significant portion of saturated fats. They provide stability and a strong foundation.

Saturated fat is also a fantastic source of energy, at least if you trust your body to make the right decision—otherwise, why else would we store excess carbohydrates as saturated body fat?1 In fact, when we burn body fat for energy, either through exercise or through dieting, we are quite literally consuming huge amounts of saturated (and monounsaturated) fat. Body fat is energy to be used for later; dietary fat is energy to be used immediately or stored for later.

Losing weight is like eating pure lard, which has nearly the same fatty acid composition as human adipose tissue. To vilify saturated fat is to assume that, over the span of our evolution, our bodies have somehow developed a predilection for a deleterious energy source that contributes to cardiovascular disease.

Does Saturated Fat Cause Heart Disease?

It should be a simple thing to show, right? Populations that eat the most saturated fat should have the most heart attacks. But this isn’t the case. Let’s look at a few.

The Tokelau Islanders

The Tokelauans traditionally consumed a diet high in saturated fat from coconut, as well as fish, fruit, and tubers. When I say “high in saturated fat” I mean it: about 40-50% of their total calories came from saturated fat from coconut meat. Conventional cardiologists would have a fit if their patients were eating that much saturated fat. And yet ECG research from a study in the 80s on Tokelauans still eating their traditional diet shows zero evidence of any prior heart attacks. In New Zealand at the time, about 1% of males aged 40-69 had readings that suggested a prior heart attack. In Tecumseh, USA, 3.5% of men aged 40-69 had prior heart attack readings. In Tokelauans, it was 0.0%.

The Kitavan Islanders

The Kitavans ate a much higher carb diet than the Tokelauans, but they still had a much higher saturated fat intake than is typically considered “healthy” at a 17% of calories. And they were free of most modern metabolic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.

No matter where you look across the Pacific, high saturated fat intakes from coconut do not appear unhealthy or dangerous.2 No matter where you look across the Pacific, you see traditional diets that exceed the maximum 6% of calories form saturated fat ordained by the American Heart Association—and you see traditional populations eating those traditional diets avoid heart disease.

The Masai

The traditional diet for male Masai is a low-carb, high-saturated fat one that consists mainly of meat, milk, and blood, and research shows that they remain lean, healthy, and free of heart disease despite this conventionally-atherogenic diet.3

The French

The most famous of health “paradoxes,” the French paradox describes the fact that despite logging some of the highest intakes of saturated fat the French have some of the lowest rates of heart disease. And boy do people try to explain it away.

Just check out this explanation:4

“In representative cross sectional surveys of the French population performed in 1986–87 and 1995–97, the saturated fat intake was 15% of the total energy intake in the first survey and 16% in the latter survey. This high consumption of saturated fatty acids is such that French subjects are exposed to a high risk of CHD. Why a high consumption of saturated fatty acids does not lead to a high CHD risk in France (and maybe elsewhere) is a central question behind the French paradox concept.”

Somehow the French “survive” their exposure to a “high risk of CHD” in the form of eating saturated fat. You see what they did? The “risk” is very real. It’s just that the French luck out and survive it.

It all started, of course, with the infamous Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study, which tracked the fat consumption and heart disease levels of various nations. It was named for the seven countries that saw an increase in heart disease cases correspond with increased fat consumption, but it should have been named the Twenty Two Countries Study for all the data he omitted. Data, I should mention, that demolished his hypothesis of fat intake causing heart disease. Those red dots in the bottom right are the populations that didn’t make the original study: Tokelau, Masai, and Inuit.

Try drawing a straight line through those data points. As you can see, there is a faint, weak correlation between fat intake and heart disease, but it’s just that: a correlation. It shouldn’t confirm anything except the need to run controlled experiments to directly measure the effects of dietary fat. Unfortunately, that correlation was enough to get Keys the front cover of Time and widespread acclaim as the father of dietary science. His hypothesis gained traction in the scientific community and mainstream CW, a position it has never really relinquished. Subsequent controlled experiments to measure the effects of saturated fat have been either inconclusive, poorly designed, or completely unsupportive of the saturated fat-is-evil hypothesis, but because the starting point assumes it to be true, those inconclusive or unsupportive results become aberrations while the poorly designed studies become canon.

Meanwhile, Keys’ peer, British scientist John Yudkin, was finding even more compelling connections between dietary sugar and heart disease, but his ideas gained no traction and garnered no significant follow up experimental studies.5 Keys got the cover of Time and heaps of public adulation; Yudkin was relegated to publishing now-out-of-print books, writing letters to scientific journals that were only ignored, and languishing in relative obscurity. If you want a deeper discussion of Yudkin, check out Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Are Foods that Contain Saturated Fat Bad For You?

Ultimately, we aren’t eating “saturated fat.” We don’t eat isolated palmitic acid or stearic acid. We eat food, and sometimes that food contains saturated fat along with vitamins, minerals, and many other fatty acids. That’s food.

If researchers are going to say saturated fat is dangerous, they must show that saturated fat-containing foods are dangerous to eat. Have they? Let’s look at research into some foods high in saturated fat.

  • Gouda cheese: Full of saturated fat, also full of vitamin K2, reduces cardiovascular mortality.6
  • Pecorino romano cheese: Improved markers of atherosclerosis in those who ate it. Good source of CLA, yes, but also saturated fat. Still manages to reduce heart disease risk.7
  • Red meat: Increased red meat intake reduced dementia risk.8 Okay, grandpa, you might be able to remember your grandkids’ names but you’re gonna have a heart attack.
  • High-fat dairy: Reduces heart disease, diabetes, and overall mortality. Very high in saturated fat.

Okay, okay. Maybe these foods are “healthy in certain contexts” but still give you heart disease somehow. Sure, just prove it.

They cannot.

Or maybe they’re healthy “despite” the saturated fat intake. If we could just engineer gouda cheese to be richer in PUFAs or ribeyes to be lower in saturated fats, they’d be “even healthier!”

Does anyone believe this? We’re living in the real world where foods are foods. You can’t “control” for a variable that literally exists inside the food you’re trying to demonize.

Look to Evolution

To begin with, humans are born with a taste for fat. It’s delicious, and that’s no mistake. Given the choice between a lean chicken breast and a fatty, crispy thigh, most people instinctively go for the thigh. Social anti-fat conditioning might direct a few of us toward the dry breast, but fatty cuts just taste better.

Our taste for fat is hundreds of thousands of years old. From mammoth marrow you could use an ice scream scoop to harvest to shattered kudu femurs from half a million years ago to Bronze Age nomads living off mare milk and boar backfat, humans have always loved animal fat—much of which is saturated. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, hallowed purveyor of pemmican and admirer of the high-fat Inuit diet, spent considerable time with the northern native Americans and noted that they seemed to “hunt animals selectively.” They would specifically pass on the tender calves and go for the older caribou, the ones with huge slabs of back fat that could be rendered and stored. This caribou fat was about 50% saturated.

Does this mean you should only eat saturated fat? Of course not.

For one thing, eating nothing but saturated fat is very hard to do using whole foods. Very few animals exist in the world, past or present, with only saturated fat. The only exception I can recall is the coconut, a curious sort of beast that spends most of its time hanging from a tree impersonating a large hairy drupe. Your average slab of beef fat runs about 50% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat, and 5% PUFA. That differs from cut to cut and depending on the diet of the animal, but not by much. It’s similar for other ruminants like bison and lamb. And the most prominent saturated fatty acid in ruminant fat is stearic acid, a fat that converts to monounsaturated oleic acid in the body and has an effect on cholesterol indistinguishable from MUFA or PUFA.

My point is that by eating whole foods, you will get saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, PUFA, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and a whole host of yet to be quantified food components. To single one out, one that has never even been shown to be dangerous, is pure folly.

I could go on, but you get the idea: Humans have been consuming a wide range of fatty acids for millennia, including saturated fatty acids. It probably makes sense to emulate that intake.

I’d love to hear you thoughts, so hit me up with a comment. What’s your stance on saturated fat?

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