A probe into the origins of the notion that saturated fat causes heart disease and should be avoided at all costs. Why did saturated fat cross over from being considered a vital nutrient to a deadly one?
Many doctors and health experts vilify dietary fat, urging everyone to cut down on the macronutrient in favor of low fat alternatives. Even more common is for health experts to talk about good fats and bad fats. More often than not, saturated fat is at the top of the fat naughty list. It is worth examining how saturated fat got its reputation for being a deadly nutrient and seeing if the reputation is deserved or not.
Saturated fat and Ancel Keys
Those who abhor saturated fat point to the work of Dr. Ancel Keys, who popularized the notion that saturated fat causes heart disease. In 1953, Keys wrote a paper with the key finding of a correlation between fat intake and heart disease deaths in six countries around the world. Data was actually available for 22 countries around the world, and the association between fat intake and heart disease was not present in several of the countries.
17 years later, Keys published a study looking at seven countries that found a correlation between animal fats and heart disease rates, as well as total cholesterol numbers and heart disease rates. Keys concluded that saturated fats in animal foods led to high cholesterol levels which led to higher incidences of heart disease. The problem with Keys’ 1970 study of the seven countries was that three of the seven countries examined actually had no correlation between animal fat consumption and heart disease prevalence.
Saturated fat and cholesterol
As far as the connection between saturated fat and cholesterol goes, Keys got it wrong as well. Saturated fat does increase LDL cholesterol, which builds up plaque on artery walls. Saturated fat also increases HDL cholesterol, as much or possibly more than it increases LDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol removes plaque from artery walls, which means that any damage saturated fat does to bad cholesterol is undone by its effect on good cholesterol levels.
Furthermore, it appears saturated fat doesn’t affect LDL cholesterol levels as negatively as previously thought. LDL cholesterol comes in two varieties: small and dense particles or large and fluffy particles. The large and fluffy LDL particles have no association with clogged arteries, whereas the small and dense LDL particles had a strong association with clogged arteries. It turns out that replacing carbohydrates with saturated or unsaturated fats decreases the levels of small, dense LDL particles.
Saturated fat – A vital nutrient?
So is saturated fat the demonic nutrient conventional wisdom makes it out to be? It appears that the answer is no, and that saturated fat is not only safe but actually quite beneficial to human physiology. Saturated fat improves cardiovascular risk factors, increases bone strength, improves liver health, is essential to lung and brain health, influences insulin release and metabolic rate, and helps the immune system function. Ancel Keys got it wrong, and unfortunately his condemnation of saturated fat has contributed to a widespread dietary fat phobia.
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