Is Saturated Fat Healthy? A Conversation Between Me and My Mom

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?
Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Quick Note Before the Blog Post:

In my desire to keep you and those you care about feeling fit and strong throughout the holiday season, I want to share Death of the Diet at a deeply discounted price (feel free to forward the link). The Kindle version of Death of the Diet will be half price ($4.99) for a limited time on the days leading up to Thanksgiving – now through Wednesday Nov. 27th.  On Turkey Day, it goes back to full price.

Happy and healthy holidays to all!  – Jason

And now to the topic at hand…

About a month ago my mom emailed me asking about whether fat in the diet, particularly saturated fat, is healthy.  Her interest was piqued due to her recent visits to an Ayurvedic physician and an article by Adam Bornstein for Shape.com.  Below is my conversation with her about the question “Is saturated fat healthy?” – I’m interested to hear everyone’s thoughts:

From My Mom – Quoting Bornstein’s article:

7. Eat saturated fat.

Books like The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives have pointed the finger at saturated fats-and all animal fats-as the reason for countless health problems. Yet all the research used to support this hypothesis took a very slanted bias and completely ignored populations that were incredibly healthy despite diets based on saturated fats. For example, people who live in Tokelau (a territory off of New Zealand) eat a diet that is 50 percent saturated fats, and they have cardiovascular health that is superior to any other group of people. Even Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, has publicly stated (after a 20-year review of research) that fats-and more specifically saturated fats-are not the cause of the obesity crisis and are not the cause of heart disease.

The fad-free truth: Cholesterol actually acts as an antioxidant against dangerous free radicals within the blood. When there are high levels of undesirable substances in the blood (caused by inflammation in your arteries from eating highly processed foods and large quantities of sugars), cholesterol levels rise in order to combat these substances. Cholesterol is also necessary for the production of a number of hormones, some of which help fight against heart disease. Plus, research shows diets higher in saturated fats are often lower in total calories consumed.

*Note from Jason: The link to the full Willett article is here.  Also, Dr. Mozaffarian adds a good summary in the May 2011 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Volume 111, Number 5.  And a recent article came out in the LA Times about the topic.

My Initial Response:

I think it’s clever and slightly deceptive. It’s easy to prove a point when you only cite the research that supports it.  Many of those cultures that eat a lot of saturated fat probably consume them as a part of whole foods, not as pastries. They are also probably physically active, and not obese. Correlation does not imply causation on either side of the coin.

Most research shows that saturated fat (coconut oil, ghee, eggs, whole dairy, etc) increases both types of cholesterol, HDL & LDL.  However, recent research has started to question whether all LDL cholesterol is “bad” – certain types of LDL particles may be less harmful than others (fluffy is better), but the diagnostic tools are still not widely used.  A 2008 article by Johns Hopkins describes the situation and lists a few of the LDL particle blood tests available on the market such as NMR LipoProfile, VAP (Vertical Auto Profile), Berkeley LipoPrint.

Research over the past 15 years has started to absolve cholesterol intake as a cause of high cholesterol (they are still cautious with it when you already have high cholesterol) and it appears similar is occurring for saturated fat.  In my own research to answer this question, I came across an interesting 1962 Swiss Alpine population study that showed high calorie and high saturated fat intake did not cause high cholesterol – likely due to their high physical activity rates.

In short, consuming saturated fat in natural, whole food based form as a part of a balanced, healthful diet rich in fruits, veggies, grains/proteins coupled with a normal body weight and active lifestyle is likely fine.  Too bad some people who read Bornstein’s article only see “butter and bacon is good for me along with my pancakes and danish.”

My Mom’s Follow Up

I was speaking of whole milk/dairy products, olive oil & ghee. Her belief, from an ayurvedic perspective, is that fats in whole foods are needed to get nutrients through the cell wall. The desire to have a donut is totally my idea!

My Second Follow Up

May be true, but if whole milk, olive oil and ghee leads to excessive calorie intake and makes someone obese, then that doesn’t help either.  Also, if it doesn’t sit well in someone’s stomach (food sensitivity) that may be a sign too.

Not sure if there are studies that prove that you need fat to “get nutrients through the cell wall”, but there are a number of fat-soluble nutrients that must be consumed with fat, such as vitamins A, D, E, K, etc.  That’s why extremely low-fat diets can be risky, just like extremely low-anything diets.

To You, the Reader:

What Are Your Thoughts on Saturated Fat, LDL/Cholesterol Levels and Heart Health?

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