What’s the scoop on saturated fat? Healthy or hype?

May 21, 2020 | 8 comments

Author’s note: This is the third in a multi-part series on fats — In Part I, I wrote about trans fats, or hydrogenated fats — they transformed the processed foods industry and are linked to the rise in the incidence of coronary artery disease. Part II showed how manufacturers have turned to palm oil to replace trans fat — which is wreaking havoc on the environment — and what about your health? In today’s column, there’s an important update on saturated fat, namely coconut oil.

Is saturated fat good for you? Are burgers and butter better for you than polyunsaturated seed oils or monounsaturated fats like olive oil?

In 2014, the New York Times detailed a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that suggested that saturated fats have been wrongly demonized as the cause of heart disease.

Researchers pooled “meta-analysis” of 72 existing studies that reviewed the effects of the four types of dietary fats: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. They then evaluated the associated risk for heart disease: arteriosclerosis, angina, heart attack or sudden death.

The conclusion? They found only trans fats, the man-made fats we know as shortening (think Crisco) or margarine, were definitively linked to heart disease.

Foods high in saturated fat

And the hype began.
Headlines proclaimed saturated fat was good for you — “Is Butter Really Back?” from the Harvard Public Health Magazine, and “Rethinking Butter, Beef and Bacon” from the Cleveland Clinic got lots of buzz!

Did this mean it’s pig-out time on burgers, butter, and bacon? They don’t contain trans fats, right?

Nope. Just read that 2014 study carefully, it’s obvious that the study did not conclude that more butter is better, just that some butter isn’t bad.

Important scientists and nutritionists have criticized the study.

Dr. Walter Willet, M.D., Dr. P.H., chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston commented in the school’s publication The Nutrition Source, “They have done a huge amount of damage.  I think a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered.”

Even the scientists who authored the study walked it back. One said the study was “wrongly interpreted by the media,” and emphasized that the conclusions shouldn’t lead people to think they can now eat animal fats (or any fats, for that matter) with abandon. Another author said that although the study concluded that saturated fat was not responsible for heart disease, fish and vegetable oils are better for you.

As explained in the Harvard Health Letter, the word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. The chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible, and if the fat is saturated, it’s saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature — think cooled bacon grease or cheese. Other typical sources of saturated fat are meat, poultry with skin, butter (64% saturated fat) and cream, coconut oil (90%), and many commercially prepared baked goods and other foods made with palm oil (50%).

Science is defined as observation and experimentation

There has been a profound shift away from traditional, whole-foods diets typical to cultures around the world toward a highly processed foods diet, full of sugary foods, fatty processed meats, and industrialized foods — also known as the Standard American Diet, or SAD.

Five sobering statistics that illustrate the state of nutrition in America.

We drink more juice but we eat little whole fruit and vegetables. Children’s diets are full of sugar, including flavored and sugared milk and yogurts. Too many times I’ve observed mothers fill infant’s bottle with soda pop, something you’ve probably seen too. It’s tragic.

Instead of wholesome and healthy fats from avocado, fatty fish, from nuts and seeds, the SAD includes an excess of industrialized and refined polyunsaturated “vegetable” oils. These oils are linked to an increased risk for inflammation and could be an influencing factor in the explosion in the rate of type 2 diabetes.

We’ve known for a long time that all fats aren’t “bad” and many sources of fat are healthful. But it’s the type of fat, whether it’s from whole fresh foods, and the quantity of fat in your diet that makes it healthy or harmful.

Commenting in the Huffington Post, Dr. David Katz noted that saturated fat is not just a single food component. There are many saturated fats, and some have known health benefits (such as stearic acid, found in dark chocolate).

The same can be said about polyunsaturated fatty acids. We know that omega-3’s (abundant in fatty fish and some nuts) are heart-healthy. But an overabundance of omega-6s (especially from refined vegetable oils) may be pro-inflammatory.

“Natural” saturated fats? Healthy or hype?
Last week I wrote about palm oil, with an equal ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids. ‘Semisolid’ at room temperature, palm oil has replaced trans fat in the huge processed food industry but at extreme cost to the environment. Not only are tropical forests being destroyed because of the unrelenting demand for cheap, shelf-stable palm oil, but the health effects of diets high in processed foods are also well known. Read more here.

Dr. Oz featured coconut oil on his show as a miracle food (ah, Dr. Oz… when it sounds too good to be true…). There is no credible or peer-reviewed research that backs up any extraordinary health claims for coconut oil.

The Berkeley Wellness Newsletter examined the research in 2014 and wrote that despite health claims, the research does not support them. A recent January 2020 study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation reviewed sixteen trials that compared the effect of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular risk factors compared with other non-tropical cooking oils. The researchers conclude that in healthy people there is a significantly higher LDL-cholesterol with coconut oil consumption, which does not bode well for those with existing cardiovascular risk factors.

The fastest way to make you fatter?
But you don’t have to avoid coconut oil to stay healthy. You may like the taste of coconut oil, and that’s fine. Coconut oil, being a plant fat, may be healthier than other types of saturated fats, for example, especially from animal fats such as fatty meats and lard, but just adding oil, even coconut oil, or taking it as a tonic is a recipe for weight gain.

All fat has about 100 calories per tablespoon, regardless of the source, be it coconut oil, butter, peanut oil, olive oil, or other. As with all oils, try to buy extra virgin oils (the least processed).

Just adding coconut oil or any oil (I’ve seen similar claims for flaxseed oil) to your usual diet without compensation for calories from other foods in your diet is the fastest way to make you fatter.

Obesity is the critical driver of chronic diseases throughout the world, even in countries where malnutrition used to be the most significant public health problem. In both developed and in developing countries childhood and adult obesity leads to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and many cancers.

If you’re watching your weight and your waist, an easy modification is to see where you might cut some added fats, for example, maybe it’s the butter you’re putting on your bread or slathering onto your potatoes. A hamburger can fit into your healthy diet, but when you smother the meat with cheese and gobs of mayo-based dressing you’re adding hundreds of calories that are often not accounted for.

My focus is always weight management — in a healthy way. Not by “going on a diet” but by making modifications to your usual diet, so you can manage your weight without deprivation. One of the most practical ways is to manage your added fat intake.

Food preparation is crucial to calories. Grill rather than deep-fry. Sauté in broth rather than browning in oil. Ask for sauces “on the side.” Cut calories without sacrificing taste.

Make your food your friend, and as you would friends, choose wisely. Digestion starts in your mouth, and if you’re like me, you need to make an effort to slow it down (I’m a charter member of the ‘Speed Eaters Club’). Select the best foods you can afford, and savor the flavor.

Enjoy this recipe for Roasted Garlic Potatoes, adapted from the FoodNetwork.com




3 pounds small red or white potatoes: scrubbed
1/4 cup good olive oil or other oil – organic avocado, sesame, or walnut oils are flavorful
1 teaspoon unrefined salt – I like sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 cloves)
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley or cilantro
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, 205 degrees C.

Cut the potatoes in half or quarters (bite-sized). Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic until the potatoes are well coated. Spread the potatoes out in one layer on a sheet pan. Roast in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until browned and crisp – after the first 20 and then 40 minutes flip with a spatula to ensure even browning.

When done, toss with fresh herbs, season with a grind of salt and pepper, and serve hot.

Circulation. The effect of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials.
Harvard Health Letter. The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between.
Harvard School of Public Health. Dietary fat and heart disease study is seriously misleading.
Huffpost.com. Scapegoats, Saints and Saturated Fats: Old Mistakes in New Directions.
ScienceMag.org. Scientists fix errors in controversial paper about saturated fats.
The New York Times. Study questions fat and heart disease link. 
Time.com. The 10 best and worst oils for your health.

Food, Nutrition, and Your Health columnist Susan Burke March moved to Cuenca after 35 years as a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in the United States. She currently serves as the Country Representative from Ecuador for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Susan helps people attain better weight and health, and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions that can be improved with smart lifestyle modifications.

Susan is offering “Free” 20-minute consultations for just a $15 donation to one of the important foundations here in Cuenca. It’s a perfect time to address issues such as cooking at home, strategies for weight loss, or boosting your immunity by improving your diet.

Contact her at SusantheDietitian@gmail.com


Susan Burke March

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