Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a weekend that was as fantastic as mine. Mine was so super-fantastic, that I’m less rested than I was going into the weekend. Ah, such is life. Oh, and can I get a little Hoo-Rah for the Pats, even though they got a wee bit lucky at the end there? Ok, on to today’s post…
After writing this post about a week ago, I realized that I needed to go into more detail about fat, especially concerning the uber-villainized saturated fat, which has gotten so much bad press over the past couple of decades that it has pretty much turned into a bad word. This is completely unfair if you ask me, because saturated fat actually does some pretty great things. No, it doesn’t save kittens from trees, or rescue puppies from burning buildings, but it does have it’s own positive attributes that are definitely worth noting. Let’s discuss.
When did saturated fat start taking the blame for heart disease? And why? The answer goes back to the 1950s, when Dr. Ancel Keys noticed a correlation between countries that consume more dietary fat and higher risk of coronary artery disease (CAD). However, his research showed exactly that: A correlation. Not a definitive cause-effect relationship. Either way, the thought caught on, the government rolled with it, and as I mentioned in the earlier post, fat instantly became a villain of American Health. And you know what? His theory still hasn’t been proven. In fact, there are several studies within the past 10 years that have been trying to prove this, but they can’t.
One particularly large study called the Women’s Health Initiative, showed no decrease in heart disease in 20,000 women who consumed a low total-fat and saturated-fat diet for 8 years. While of course one study is not enough to make a definitive answer, there have been others like it, such as the long-term Framingham Study, which has also failed to prove that saturated fat is directly linked to heart disease. What is known is that heart disease is not caused by one thing alone; it is multifactorial. Diet, lack of exercise, stress, smoking, among other things are all indicators of risk. So with all of these factors, is saturated fat really the biggest enemy?
It has long been thought that eating saturated fats raises your cholesterol levels, and that this is what leads directly to heart disease. The research in the past decade, however, has failed to prove this point entirely. Let’s break it down a little bit.
You have two main types of blood cholesterol that we are concerned about when it comes to heart disease: LDL and HDL. While yes, LDL or “bad” cholesterol contributes to arterial plaque buildup, HDL or “good” cholesterol is thought to help take that buildup away. What the research has shown us is that it is not so much the levels of LDL that are important in determining risk of CAD, but much more important is the ratio between LDL and HDL (a low LDL:HDL ratio decreases your risk). It is true that consuming saturated fat increases your blood cholesterol levels, but what’s really important here is that when you eat a steak (or cheese, or whole milk, etc.) you are raising your levels of LDL but you are also raising your levels of HDL the same amount, if not more. Now, I’m no math whiz, but when it comes to ratios, doesn’t that mean that you actually come out dead even, or maybe even a little bit on top?
When it comes to heart health, the more HDL cholesterol your body has, the better. And you know what? HDL comes from eggs, cheese, butter, red meat, and other animal products. All of those things that contain saturated fats and are supposedly bad for you.
Here’s the kicker: It has even been suggested that the heart’s preferred source of fuel is saturated fatty acids.
BOOM! Just blew your mind, didn’t I.
So what’s my message here? Surprisingly, it’s not to go out and eat a diet consisting 100% of bacon blue-cheese burgers (although quite delicious). I’m not saying that we should all gorge ourselves on saturated fat in order to keep our hearts healthy, because that’s certainly not the answer either. I’m just saying that Saturated Fat doesn’t have to be the enemy. The recommended daily amount of saturated fat was recently lowered from 10% to 7% for Americans. As I see it, research has shown us that this is not completely necessary, and as long as you keep your macros and daily calorie total in check, then you’ll be all set. Look at it this way: If you follow a low-fat diet full of highly refined carbohydrates, don’t exercise, and smoke a pack a day, you’d better bet that you’d be a better candidate for CAD than someone with a higher fat diet. Now, clearly there are some cases where people who have advanced heart disease need to be more careful with their SF and cholesterol intake. But for most active, healthy people, saturated fat can absolutely have a place in a healthy, well-rounded diet. It’s all about balance, folks. And that’s the truth.
*Note: Here is a link to a good post by Cassandra Forsyth, summarizing a conference in which this subject was discussed. It’s also the source of one of the photos above 🙂