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The truth about saturated fats are they safe and how much can we have

Posted by Dayne Hudson in Weight Loss

Estimated reading time: 6mins

The truth about saturated fats are they safe and how much can we have | Bulk Nutrients Blog

Saturated fats and heart disease: should we be worried?

The alarmism began following the now notorious Seven Countries study in 1958, that looked at saturated fat intake and heart disease among just over 12,700 men. It reported a correlation between high saturated fatty acid intake and heart disease. And too many people haven't forgotten it. 

The key thing to remember in science is that correlation does NOT equal causation. For example:

You eat eggs for breakfast, and you injure your ankle playing sports that afternoon.

The incorrect correlation is that eating eggs for breakfast causes ankle injuries. The correct correlation is that playing sports can lead to ankle injuries. 

And such is what happened with the Seven Countries study in relation to saturated fats and heart disease; it didn't take into account the other factors involved in the disease -- things like smoking and exercise. The study also left out data of more than 10 other countries and didn’t report on the other nations that had a high intake of saturated fat and next to no heart disease!

And once "saturated fats are really bad" gets spread within a few generations, it's hard to stop.

Further research via a meta-analysis in 2014 concluded:

"Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats."

And at least another 7 research papers have found the same thing.

And fast-forwarding closer to today; a review in 2020 concluded that reducing saturated fatty acids was not beneficial in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and actually found a positive effect against stroke. And although saturated fats do increase LDL cholesterol (the "bad" type) it's the type of LDL particles that "are much less strongly related to cardiovascular disease risk." 

The researchers went on to note that: "It is also apparent that the health effects of foods cannot be predicted by their content in any nutrient group without considering the overall macronutrient distribution." They pointed to whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, and dark chocolate as examples of foods that are rich in saturated fatty acids with a "complex matrix that is not associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease." 

In other words, you can't just say food is unhealthy because it has saturated fats when it contains many other health-promoting macro and micronutrients. 

The researchers concluded: "The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods." 

So, we know that saturated fats aren't directly hazardous; we need to ensure we're living a balanced lifestyle consisting of wholefoods and exercise to ensure great health and wellbeing. So how much saturated fat can we eat?

Saturated fats can form part of a healthy diet.
Saturated fats can form part of a healthy diet.

Saturated fat intake: How much can I eat daily?

According to the National Health Service in the UK:

- Men should eat no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day
- Women should eat no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day

However, such guidelines are difficult to say with any iron-clad confidence. Scientists, in concert with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee prefer we "focus on foods and healthier dietary patterns, rather than individual nutrients or limits on total dietary fat."

We agree with the researchers who provide a commentary on this very question; it's better to teach the public about healthy dietary patterns and foods as opposed to honing on a single nutrient like saturated fat.

Food's high in saturated fat

As mentioned above, we shouldn't avoid dairy, dark chocolate, unprocessed meats, and other foods that contain saturated fat simply because they do. We have to look at foods as a whole and practice common sense. The types of foods (that happen to contain saturated fats) that we advise you to consume in moderation anyway, are:

- White and milk chocolate, toffee, cakes, puddings and biscuits
- Pies and pastries
- Lamb chops
- Processed meats like sausages, burgers, bacon and kebabs
- Butter, lard, ghee, dripping, margarine
- Coconut and palm oils and coconut cream

Our goal should immediately be a diet high in whole foods and enjoying foods like this in moderation. Research shows allowing for a "flexible" approach to dieting when compared to a rigid one equates to better long-term fat loss. 

Health is a holistic approach, not obsessing about one nutrient like saturated fat.
Health is a holistic approach, not obsessing about one nutrient like saturated fat.

It boils down to this: saturated fats aren't hazardous to your heart and health as much as once thought and can and should be included within a healthy balanced diet. The myth that saturated fats are harmful came from poor observational studies, that have since been scrutinised in the modern era by detailed and rigorous scientific reviews.

Men should eat no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day, and women no more than 20, it seems. But scientists suggest a balanced diet in wholefoods, whether they have saturated fats or not, is a better strategy than spending energy eliminating saturated fat. 

References:

  1. Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, Crowe F, Ward HA, Johnson L, Franco OH, Butterworth AS, Forouhi NG, Thompson SG, Khaw KT, Mozaffarian D, Danesh J, Di Angelantonio E. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2014 Mar 18;160(6):398-406. doi: 10.7326/M13-1788. Erratum in: Ann Intern Med. 2014 May 6;160(9):658. PMID: 24723079. 
  2. Felton CV, Crook D, Davies MJ, Oliver MF. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and composition of human aortic plaques. Lancet. 1994 Oct 29;344(8931):1195-6. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(94)90511-8. PMID: 7934543. 
  3. Hoenselaar R. Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. Nutrition. 2012 Feb;28(2):118-23. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2011.08.017. PMID: 22208554. 
  4. Keys A, Menotti A, Aravanis C, Blackburn H, Djordevic BS, Buzina R, Dontas AS, Fidanza F, Karvonen MJ, Kimura N, et al. The seven countries study: 2,289 deaths in 15 years. Prev Med. 1984 Mar;13(2):141-54. doi: 10.1016/0091-7435(84)90047-1. PMID: 6739443. 
  5. Kuipers RS, de Graaf DJ, Luxwolda MF, Muskiet MH, Dijck-Brouwer DA, Muskiet FA. Saturated fat, carbohydrates and cardiovascular disease. Neth J Med. 2011 Sep;69(9):372-8. PMID: 21978979. 
  6. Liu AG, Ford NA, Hu FB, Zelman KM, Mozaffarian D, Kris-Etherton PM. A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):53. Published 2017 Aug 30. doi:10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4 
  7. Meule A, Westenhöfer J, Kübler A. Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite. 2011 Dec;57(3):582-4. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.07.013. Epub 2011 Jul 29. PMID: 21824503.  
  8. Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB, Herrington DM. Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Nov;80(5):1175-84. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/80.5.1175. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jan;81(1):199. PMID: 15531663; PMCID: PMC1270002. 
  9. Ravnskov U. The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease. J Clin Epidemiol. 1998 Jun;51(6):443-60. doi: 10.1016/s0895-4356(98)00018-3. PMID: 9635993. 
  10. Rehman MS, Student RI. Dietary saturated fat intake, is there really an association with coronary heart disease? J Pak Med Assoc. 2012 Apr;62(4):411. PMID: 22755296. 
  11. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, KRAUSS RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46.
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