Saturated Fat: Friend of Foe?

Beyond Meat’s Beef-Less Crumbles have 0 grams of saturated fat, compared to the 8 grams found in 100 grams of 80% lean ground beef.  If you listen to the advice given by just about every health organization from the American Heart Association to the World Health Organization, then this should be a reason to celebrate.  After all, saturated fat is the “bad” fat which is linked to America’s #1 killer right now: heart disease.  But at the same time there is a group of people (mostly paleo diet supporters) who are saying that all the info on saturated fat is flat-out wrong and that saturated fat is actually good for you.  So who should you believe?

The Case For and Against Saturated Fat

You don’t have to look very hard to find scientific studies which support the idea that saturated fat is bad for you.  There are dozens of studies which show how saturated fat increases levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body, which in turn clogs arteries and causes heart disease.

Of course, you also don’t have to look very hard to find experts who refute these studies, with claims that the studies are flawed.  There are also dozens of studies which indicate that saturated fat is healthy for you because it raises “good” HDL cholesterol levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.

When criticizing the notion that saturated fat is bad for you, most of the naysayers point to the “Seven Country Study” which was originally used as the grounds for stigmatizing saturated fats.  This study looked at people from 7 countries and found that men eating diets high in saturated fats did indeed have higher levels of heart disease.

The critics say that the Seven Country Study was flawed because it ignored data from 15 other countries in which a link between saturated fat and heart disease was not found.  There were the Inuit tribes in the Arctic who eat a diet which is almost purely fat (such as from whale blubber) and the Masai tribes of Kenya who live mostly off of a saturated-fat rich diet of red meat and whole milk.  These tribes have virtually no heart disease and are very lean.

So, based on this evidence, we should ignore long-held advice on saturated fat and start eating a diet of red meat and whole milk?

It Isn’t As Simple as “Good” or “Bad”

If you try to analyze all the latest data and determine whether saturated fat is good or bad for you, you’ll likely just end up confused and frustrated.  Here is why it is so confusing: saturated fat isn’t inherently “good” or “bad” for you.  It is, however, much more convenient for health experts and government agencies with their agendas to choose one stance and label it as simply “good” or “bad.” There is no shortage of scientific studies to support either side of the argument.  The health gurus will simply select the studies which prove the point they want to make and focus on these findings.

There are 24 different types of saturated fats – and each can have a very different effect on your body.  The saturated fats in dairy products and red meat are shown to increase LDL cholesterol levels the most.  By contrast, the saturated fats in chocolate are found to act like unsaturated fat and lower LDL cholesterol levels.  There is also ample evidence showing that saturated fats change composition due to food processing.  So, the saturated fat in the beef the Masai tribes were eating would be very different than the saturated fat in a McDonald’s hamburger.

So, What Should You Do?

There is one thing that all of the experts agree on (including the paleo gurus and vegan health advocates): that we should all work on eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and avoid saturated fats in processed foods.  Saturated fat does have a lot of important health functions, like building cell membranes, helping in hormone production, and transporting vitamins throughout the body.  So, go ahead and cook your Beyond Meat stir fry in some fatty coconut milk or top your sandwich with some avocado slices.

Image credit: A breakfast very high in saturated fat by
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