One of the things that irks me most, is when people aren’t open to change. Nothing infuriates me more than when someone has a stubborn view on something, where all the evidence in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference – they will not change their mind.
Unfortunately, this is a common problem whenever I tell people that saturated fat isn’t bad for them. Shock. Horror. Am I really saying that? Reactions range from laughing to anger to mockery, and it feels a bit like I’m Galileo all those years ago trying to tell people that the earth goes round the sun. That’s how big of an idea that saturated fat is bad has become in many people’s eyes.. which is strange because often the only evidence of their belief they can supply is ‘because’ or ‘it clogs the arteries’.
To try and convince people otherwise, the first step is always tearing down the backing of their ideas. So I’ll start with the ‘it clogs the arteries’ claim;
The human body is exceptionally complex, there’s not much in this universe more complicated than ourselves. So is it really intelligent to think that when we eat something high in saturated fat – a steak for example – that the fat goes into our mouths, through our digestive system.. and then finds an artery it likes the look of and sets up camp? For a start, if we’re essentially built for survival (which we are).. that would be a serious design flaw, and since we’ve managed to make it all these years – I think we can assume we’re built a bit better than that.
In reality the mechanism by why saturated fat DOES clog the arteries is not a direct one. For the ins and outs of cholesterol and it’s effects you should read this article, but to give you a short overview:
Saturated fat raises levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), which is broken down in the liver. However, on it’s journey to the liver, LDL particles often don’t have enough ‘energy’ to make it, and end up bashing into things and leaving behind chunks of cholesterol which bind to other matter, and potentially end up in the blood vessels.
Saturated fat doesn’t directly sit in your arteries, but as a bi-product of it’s consumption – you may raise the level of particles that then may cause yet another type of particle that possibly will.
The less negative light
However, what people fail to realise is that saturated fat also raises levels of HDL (good cholesterol), and once again if you have read the article I referenced a paragraph or so ago – you’ll realise that HDLs somewhat blunt the effects of LDLs, reducing their ability to harm your body.
In actual fact, when you compare the relative effects of saturated fat intake to refined carbohydrates (like white bread, most cereals, sweets, etc) – saturated fat comes out in a better light: Yes, saturated fat raises levels of LDL – that’s bad. But it also raises levels of HDL, and lowers the levels of triglycerides in the blood (another marker for heart health) – that’s good. When you combine the two effects, you come to the conclusion that saturated fat is actually pretty much neutral in relation to heart disease risk.
So the theory is all there, it’s telling you that saturated fat is not bad, but neither is it good. Here is a bit of paraphrasing about some studies then, that talks about how the theory comes out in reality;
Three separate groups of researchers recently looked at all the data from large, long-term studies tracking the actual level of saturated-fat intake in people, and the amount of heart attacks and strokes within that population. They all came to exactly the same conclusion: No association between saturated fat and heart attacks or strokes – the people in these studies who ate the most saturated fat, had almost identical rates of heart disease as the people who consumed the least.
Three different groups, as much data as possible, all came to the same conclusion – saturated fat is not bad for you.
The effects of such a huge myth
Unfortunately, the wide-spread misleading idea that saturated fat should be avoided at all costs has lead to a lot of people making less healthy choices. Processed meats, margarine, refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are all perceived in higher regard than foods high in saturated fat – and yet they are all, in reality, less healthy choices.
Several studies have shown that processed meats are undoubtedly worse for you than saturated fat – but no-one actually gets told that. In fact, the consumption of unprocessed meat (bacon, hot dogs, sausages etc) has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes 2-3 times more than the consumption of unprocessed meats (like steak), which are much higher in saturated fat. And yet, if I came up to someone in the street and said ‘hey, that white bread deli-meat sandwich you just ate.. that’s worse for your heart than a steak’ I would be laughed off.
Benefits of saturated fat
Not only is saturated fat required in our diet (you can’t survive very long at all without any), but it also has a plethora of advantages to it’s consumption.
Without covering all of the benefits, saturated fat has been shown to be important for: brain, immune system, liver, and nerve functioning, healthy lungs, and stronger bones.
For those interested in weight-loss, you may also be somewhat astounded to hear that several studies have shown diets containing high levels of meats (and therefore saturated fats) have been beneficial to fat-loss, especially in the abdominal region. Higher-fat diets are also often used to relieve or cure a wide-range of ailments including epilepsy, allergies and digestive issues.
Think about it, it makes sense – we were once cavemen consuming mostly meat – going back to that diet is going to suit our digestive systems (which have only been introduced to things like refined carbohydrates relatively recently) just fine.
All this talk is getting a little close to the benefits of a high-fat or Paleo diet, which is definitely for another article. But I hope you now finally understand that saturated fat is not necessarily bad for you at all – and should not be avoided, especially in favour of poorer food choices such as refined carbs, sugars, and processed meats.