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Saturated Fat: Wrongfully Accused?

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Each week the results of new studies, published in well-respected journals, make news headlines. Often, the studies that create the most buzz are those that reinforce popular opinion. A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) has not made news headlines, possibly because it contradicts a long-held belief about weight management and cardiovascular health. However, the results are important to pay attention to if we're going to attack the issues related to obesity and heart disease.

Saturated Fat and Cardiovascular Disease

The meta-analyses in the AJCN reviewed the evidence in 347,747 study participants and found that "intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, or cardiovascular disease (CVD).[i] Put more simply, the article shows saturated fat consumption does not increase the risk of heart disease. The theory that fat intake increases the risk of heart disease or weight gain has been met with growing criticism in recent years.

Science writer Gary Taubes caught public attention in 2002 with the publication of his article What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie? in the New York Times. Taubes discussed the lack of scientific evidence supporting the "lipid hypothesis".[ii] The lipid hypothesis, made popular in the 1950's by Ancel Keys, theorized that the more saturated fat and cholesterol a person eats, the greater the risk of heart disease. Although the evidence to support the hypothesis was weak, the logic was the more fat people ate, the more fat they would accumulate and the more heart disease they would face.[iii] Over time, the more the hypothesis was talked about, the more popular it became. Today, most people talk about fat consumption and its effect on heart disease and weight gain as though it's a proven fact. Many low-carb diet proponents tried to point out the missing evidence to support the lipid hypothesis, but because their perspectives have often been so contradictory to popular opinion, they've often been met with strong criticism.

The French, who tend to eat much more fat than we do in the United States, suffer from far less heart disease. Is there something special about eating more fat in France than eating it in the United States? Probably not. It is more likely that in the United States we're eating other things besides the fat that are causing much of the problem. There is mounting evidence to show that excess carbohydrate, especially sugars and other refined carbohydrates, may be to blame for our large occurrence of heart disease. Excess carbohydrate has been shown to increase the blood's level of triglycerides and very-low density lipoprotein, both of which increase the risk of heart disease.[iv] It would be quite a change in dietary recommendations if we were told to make carbohydrate intake a smaller part of our normal diet.

A Low-Fat Food Industry

As people walk through today's supermarkets, food labels carry marketing intended to reinforce the lipid hypothesis, the idea that you should eat as little fat as possible. Products draw consumers attention based on a product's fat content. We are tempted by frozen meals, desserts and snacks that provide as much taste as can be manufactured in a product while keeping fat levels as low as possible to make them more sellable. Most of these foods contain extra carbohydrates to make up for the lack of fat in them.


As an individual takes steps to eat a more whole-food diet, fat content may go up. Many natural foods such as meat, eggs, poultry, nuts and seeds have more fat than their processed-food replacements. This can leave one confused. How can you eat a diet made up of seeds, nuts, meats, regular dairy, fruit and vegetables and keep your fat content lower than when you eat processed foods? According to the results of the AJCN study and other evidence that contradicts the lipid hypothesis, maybe you don't need to. Hopefully the AJCN article will pave the way for additional research so we can really see whether dietary fat is as bad as we've been led to believe it is.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu F, Krauss R. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 doi:10.3945

[ii] Gary Taubes. What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie? The New York Times. July 7, 2002.

[iii] Enig M, Fallon S. The Skinny on Fats. From: Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. 1999, New Trends Publising, Inc.

[iv] Parks, E. Effect of Dietary Carbohydrate on Triglyceride Metabolism in Humans. J Nut. 2001:131:2772S-2774S

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Reader Comments (2)

Your article on the lack of correlation between saturated fat and coronary heart disease may be true, but your comparison of
the French with Americans should have been omitted. Yes, the French may eat more saturated fat than Americans, but the French drink much more red wine and exercise much more than Americans. Walking is commonplace in Paris. You cannot draw any conclusions regarding saturated fat by comparing the French to Americans.

July 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

In the opinions of many.. Chris Masterjohn, Bill Lands, Ray Peat, Art Ayers, the deceased Broda Barnes Poly-unsaturated fats are the causes of Heart disease, obesity, cancers, and many types of inflammation. I think one of the best nutritional quotes of all times comes from Broda Barnes book Solved:The Riddle of Heart Attacks in 1976.. he stated ‘Everyone should have the privilege of playing Russian Roulette if it is desired, but it is only fair to have the warning that with the use of polyunsaturated fats the gun probably contains live ammunition.’ Bill Lands research concludes that when humans daily consumption goes above 1% of calories combined between omega 6 and omega 3 polyunsaturated fats they have much higher propensity for rates of disease and specifically cardiovascular disease.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdavid ramsey

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