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The skinny on saturated fats

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

Does fat make you fat?

Is your fridge stocked with low-fat or “zero-fat” foods — yogurt, ice cream or skim milk? Do reduced-fat treats — cookies, crackers, chips or granola — line your pantry? Will you only eat egg white omelets? Are you the guest always requesting grilled vegetables or a veggie burger at a barbecue?

Woman saying no to hamburger

Photo credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

If you’ve been conscientious about eliminating dietary fat from your diet, then you believe what most Americans do: fat, especially saturated fat, is bad for our heart — and our health.

The secret: Fat doesn’t make you fat

"In the 1970s, my mother decided we should stop eating red meat based on the advice of health experts at the time," says Nina Teicholz, who, for most of her adult life, dutifully ate a "low-fat" diet — pasta, stir-fried vegetables, chicken and fish. After moving to New York City in 2000, Teicholz landed a job as a restaurant reviewer for a small paper that had no budget to pay for her meals. She ended up eating whatever chefs chose to send out to her, typically red meat, pâté, foie gras and cream sauces — foods that she had rarely, if ever, eaten.

"It was all delicious and, without even trying, I dropped 10 pounds that I couldn’t lose before," says Teicholz. Her once chronic sinus infections also disappeared. And her cholesterol levels were fine, well within acceptable range.

How was it possible to lose weight, have normal cholesterol and be at low risk for heart disease while eating a relatively high-fat diet? It was a mystery that Teicholz, an investigative journalist, was determined to solve. This dietary fat "paradox" that she experienced became the subject of her just-published book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Teicholz spent 10 years researching and analyzing original studies and data on dietary fat, demonstrating, in the process, how the low-fat nutrition advice of the last 60 years has negatively affected our health.

As it turns out, red meat, organ meat and whole-fat dairy, all sources of saturated fat, promote satiety and help stabilize blood sugar levels — key for sustained weight loss. "The last decade of well-controlled clinical trials unequivocally shows that a higher fat (50 to 60 percent), low-carb diet is better for health than a low-fat one in terms of weight control, diabetes and heart disease," says Teicholz.

Saturated fat and heart health

For several decades, health experts and nutritionists have been quick to point an accusatory finger at saturated fat as the main dietary culprit in heart disease and obesity.

"The biggest misconception that Americans have about saturated fat is that it causes heart disease, and there is no evidence that shows saturated fat causes heart disease," says Teicholz. Her book also shows how any evidence inferring that saturated fat causes obesity, diabetes or cancer was the result of faulty methodology or political maneuvering.

The original recommendation that all Americans eat a low-fat diet were based on evidence from studies done exclusively on middle-aged men — there was no data specific to women. The Framingham Study (published in 1971), one of the few studies that included women, showed that for women aged 50 and older, the higher their cholesterol, the longer they lived.

Women get heart disease in a different way than men — their risk increases after menopause, Teicholz explains. When the low-fat diet was finally tested on women in the late 1990s, researchers discovered that women suffered the consequences of eating too little fat: their high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol dropped dramatically, increasing their risk for heart attack.

How saturated fat became the "bad" fat

In the early 1950s, Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota, developed the diet-heart hypothesis, the idea that eating dietary saturated fat (as well as dietary cholesterol) raises blood cholesterol in humans, contributing to a greater risk of heart attack. (Keys was also convinced that eating fat must make people fat.) The diet-heart hypothesis was the basis of Keys’ oft-cited and aggressively promoted Seven Countries Study (1958-1964).

The Seven Countries Study had its detractors from the start (and continues to have them around the world). Even so, in 1961, the American Heart Association began recommending that Americans avoid saturated fat to fight heart disease. These guidelines were based on an epidemiological study, which, unlike clinical trials, can only show association between variables — not prove causation. There were also inherent methodological problems in the study design," says Teicholz.

Has a low-fat diet helped reduce heart disease, diabetes and obesity?

Consider the following:

  • In 1961, roughly one in seven adult Americans was obese; today, it’s one in three Americans.
  • The rate of diabetes has risen from less than one percent of the adult population to 10 percent.
  • Heart disease still remains the leading cause of death for both men and women: 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year; that’s one in four deaths.

Benefits of saturated fats

  • Saturated fats have a protective effect on heart health. Regular consumption of saturated fat lowers lipoprotein(a) — a substance highly correlated with risk for heart disease. And saturated fat raises the level of "good" HDL cholesterol.
  • Promotes weight loss. Women who eat the greatest percentage of total fat in their diet as saturated fat lose the most weight.
  • Prevention of osteoporosis. Calcium is necessary for bone health, but adequate intake of saturated fat is necessary for calcium absorption. For this reason, dietary fat researcher Mary Enig, Ph.D., advocates that 50 percent of the fats in your diet should be comprised of saturated fats (versus the AHA’s recommendation to reduce saturated fat to 5-6 percent of total calories).
  • Proper lung function. Your lungs are coated with a thin layer of lung surfactant, which is comprised of 100 percent saturated fatty acids. A lack of adequate dietary saturated fat can potentially cause breathing difficulties.
  • Healthy brain. Your brain is about 60 percent fat, and most of the fatty acids in the brain are saturated. It’s also rich in cholesterol: about 25 precent of all body cholesterol is taken in by the brain. The brain requires dietary fat and cholesterol for optimal brain functioning, including memory.
  • Immune health. The saturated fats in butter (myristic acid) and coconut oil (lauric acid) are important in immune health. If white blood cells are deficient in saturated fatty acids, they are less able to recognize and destroy invasive viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Best sources of dietary (saturated) fat:

For maximum health benefits, be sure to eat quality sources of saturated fat; for example, meat, meat products and dairy from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals.

  • Egg yolks
  • Cod liver oil
  • Organ meats, like liver
  • Animal fats: lard, beef tallow, chicken, goose and duck
  • Natural saturated fats (solid at room temperature): butter, ghee, coconut oil and palm kernel oil
  • Whole-fat dairy: milk, cheese, cream and ghee
  • Coconut and coconut milk

Then and now...

How has researching her book affected Teicholz’ diet and health?

"I eat very few grains and no sugar. Instead of snacking on fruit, I now snack on cheese and nuts. I eat a lot more protein and fat. I still love vegetables and salads, but I’m no longer afraid of red meat. I will sneak liver into the hamburger meat I feed my young sons! Even though I exercise less these days, my weight is stable and much lower than when I was a vegetarian. I don’t count calories. I don’t obsess about food. And my cholesterol numbers are great!"

Recipes to enjoy saturated fat as part of a healthy diet

Coconut sweet potato fries with tahini dip
Health benefits of grassfed meat
5 Compound butter recipes

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