Read just about any article on fat these days and you can be sure that saturated fat is lumped in there right along with trans-fat and hydrogenated oils as one of the important Fats to Avoid. Saturated fat is not even close to being in the same category as these other two fats, and I’ll explain why.
The History Behind the Demonization of Saturated Fat
The myth that saturated fat is bad for you has been around since Ancel Keys’ seriously flawed study done in the 1950s that assumed saturated fat was the cause of the increase in cancer and heart disease in Western countries because Asian countries had low rates of these diseases and ate a diet low in saturated fat. However, causation does not imply causality; it’s like seeing firefighters around a burning house and assuming that they were responsible for setting the blaze.
For years we have been told to severely restrict intake of saturated fat if we want to avoid coronary heart disease, however, recent studies have called Keys’ hypothesis into question and demonstrated that the near elimination of saturated fat from the diet is not necessarily a good idea. Studies have shown that those who do not get enough fat in their diet also suffer from health problems.
There are a few reasons why fat is important to the diet; it enables the body to utilize the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, without which we would suffer from serious vitamin deficiencies; it promotes the absorption of calcium into the bones, reducing risk of osteoporosis; and it encourages healthy lungs, better nerve signaling and boosts the immune system.
What Really Causes Heart Disease
The culprit in heart disease is far more likely to be the vegetable oils we consume every day. Coronary heart disease is the result of our processed food diet, which includes an excess of hydrogenated oils, eating far too much refined sugar and white flour, and being deficient in vitamin and mineral intake.
The problem with vegetable oils is that they can become easily damaged when exposed to heat and oxygen. These oils are made rancid from the beginning by the process of being heated to high temperatures for frying and during other processes that require high temperatures, such as hydrogenation, which damages our body’s cells and can lead to a buildup in arterial plaque.
The consumption of butter and animal fat has dropped considerably since 1910, going from 18 pounds per year to just four. Yet rates of cancer and coronary heart disease have skyrocketed. However, over the same period of time, the intake of refined vegetable oils, much in the form of partially hydrogenated or trans fat, has increased by 400%. Interestingly, Keys did not take our consumption of hydrogenated oils into account.
Some of the healthiest saturated fats are tropical oils, which are rich in lauric acid, a substance that protects the body against invasion from the bacteria and viruses that are associated with arterial plaque buildup, which leads to cardiovascular disease. These kinds of fats have nearly been eliminated from our food due to the excessive fear of saturated fat.
Why Butter Is Better Than Margarine
Saturated fats are most commonly found in meat, tropical oils (such as coconut oil, and palm oil), and dairy products (such as milk, cheese, butter and eggs), and are solid when at room temperature. They are a stable fat and do not easily turn rancid, even during cooking at high heat (which is why fast food restaurants used to use it routinely for frying until it was categorized as unhealthy due to its saturated fat content).
The difference between margarine and butter in relation to how it affects your health is major. While butter consists of saturated fat, margarine is typically made up of trans-fat containing hydrogenated oils. There is no good reason for these two items to be lumped into the same category, however, much of the medical community still continues to subscribe to flawed research. For example, the USDA’s New Food Pyramid has advised us to, “Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, and lard.” The saturated fat of lard and butter is considerably healthier than shortening or stick margarine, which are sources of trans-fatty acids.
No Proof That Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease
The bottom line is that no sufficient proof that saturated fat is responsible for heart disease. The results of a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted by researchers from the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California found there is no compelling evidence to indicate that a lowered saturated fat intake lowers the incidence of heart disease or reduces deaths. The researchers noted, “The conclusion of an analysis of the history and politics behind the diet-heart hypothesis was that after 50 years of research, there was no evidence that a diet low in this fat prolongs life.”
While it is important to keep in mind that fats of any type (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) should not be consumed in large quantities, there is no reason to fear using butter, coconut oil and other saturated fats in moderation. Remove hydrogenated oils from your diet if you want to improve your health.