For some 60 years, it’s been the bedrock of nutrition and health. Just ask your doctor. He (or she) will tell you: Saturated fats raise your cholesterol. And that raises your risk of heart disease. And your chances of dying young.
There’s just one little problem with this advice. It’s probably a lie.
Not that your doctor will budge an inch – even after she (or he) reads the facts. Which he (or she) probably hasn’t. In medical school, they’re taught that saturated fats are bad. And that’s where it usually ends.
So what is the truth? Well, it’s not cut and dried. But there’s good research out there showing saturated fats simply aren’t behind the heart disease epidemic. But it all starts with one landmark study…
The “Seven Countries” Study – and Why It’s Untrustworthy
Ancel Keys was a well-known and respected physiologist. In the 1950s, he led the famous “Seven Countries” study that linked saturated fat (sat fat) to heart disease.
In Keys’ study, people with the highest intakes of sat fats also had the highest rates of heart disease. And with data from seven countries, the evidence seemed overwhelming.
But a couple of problems have come out.
First, Keys didn’t have data from just seven countries. He had data from many others. But his study only included the countries where sat fat appeared linked to heart disease.
Second, Keys study was observational. That is, he relied on second-hand reports and statistics, not on actual in-person experiments. At best, the Seven Countries Study could suggest a link… but not show a cause.
Finally, many other studies have come to a different conclusion. Including more rigorous and exacting studies.
In fact, the data behind an overlooked study from the 1970s has just been uncovered. And it sheds a whole new light on the sat fat debate. It’s the most rigorous study on sat fat and heart risk to date. And it found the opposite of Dr. Keys’ results.
Sat Fats – Not So Evil After All
The 1970s study – led by Dr. Ivan Frantz – followed 9,423 for nearly 5 years. Because all the volunteers lived in institutions, Dr. Frantz was able to control exactly what they ate.
The volunteers were put into one of 3 groups. The first group ate a standard diet including average levels of sat fats. The second group ate foods with a set amount of sat fats replaced with unsaturated plant fats. In the third group’s diet, doctors replaced twice as much sat fat as in the second group’s food.
Sure enough, cutting sat fat lowered cholesterol. An average of about 14%. But it didn’t cut the risk of clogged arteries. Or heart attack.
In fact, for every 30-point drop in total cholesterol, the risk of early death went up by 22%.
Yet this study – considered far stronger than Keys’ earlier work by today’s standards – only saw print in one small journal article. And most of the supporting data didn’t see the light of day until this year.
Oddly enough, Ancel Keys actually worked on this overlooked study. But never changed his tune about sat fat and heart risk.
Of course, not every study disagrees with Keys landmark “Seven Countries” study. But there have only been 5 other randomized, controlled trials testing for a link between sat fat and heart risk. And none managed to find one.
What Does the Science Say?
As I said, we don’t have universal agreement. But a remarkable number of studies say cutting sat fat is not the solution.
A 2015 study from Ontario’s McMaster University is typical.
These Canadian researchers didn’t find any link between sat fats and “death, heart disease, stroke, or Type 2 diabetes.” But they did find a link.
With trans fats.
In other words, every time mainstream medicine told you to swap margarine for butter, they were boosting your risk of heart trouble.
A cardiology specialist at London’s Croydon University Hospital reported much the same in the British Medical Journal. He pointed out:
- Keys’ research was only observational, which cannot show cause.
- Swapping polyunsaturated fats for sat fats does lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, but…
- It only lowers levels of large (Type A) LDL, and not the smaller, denser – and far more dangerous – Type B particles.
Finally, a team including experts from the University of California and the Harvard School of Public Health weighed in. They found…
- Swapping sat fats for polyunsaturated fats hasn’t been shown consistently to lower heart risk
- This swap also lowers levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Which lowers your body’s ability to clear LDL cholesterol from arteries.
- Substituting carbs – especially refined carbs – for sat fats can make the problem even worse by raising your risk of clogged arteries, insulin resistance, obesity, and diabetes.
So, what should you do?
Promoting Greater Heart Health – and a Longer Life
First, don’t focus all your attention on lowering cholesterol. Or on your saturated fat intake. One number – or one nutrient – isn’t the answer to good health.
You need cholesterol. It’s a key building block of cell walls. And your diet has a limited impact on cholesterol levels. Unless you tend to excess.
Eat a variety of richly colored vegetables. A moderate amount of fruit. And 3 – 4 servings of lean protein foods daily. (3 ounces is considered a serving.) Focus on grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and other meats raised naturally. They’re higher in essential nutrients.
Try to get at least two protein servings a week from wild-caught fatty fish – such as salmon or mackerel. They provide significant amounts of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
If you don’t have a reliable source of wild-caught fatty fish, consider a fish oil supplement. The EPA and DHA they contain offer many heart-health benefits.
Keep carbs – especially refined carbs – to a minimum. Ditto for added sugars. These foods are your heart’s enemies.
The important point is not to buy into the big fat lie the mainstream has pushed for the last 60 years or so.
Cutting sat fats won’t magically protect you from heart trouble. In fact, sat fats may not be the problem at all. Lowering cholesterol isn’t a useful goal… unless you know which type you’re lowering. And diets based on B.S. – like the Seven Countries Study – won’t get you anywhere.
Instead, focus on eating habits that optimize health. To get the right balance, you may have to take a few supplements. But, in the end, it’s better than giving in to a big fat lie that could wreck your heart.
About the Author: Jason Kennedy is a celebrated investigative health writer and the author of The X-Factor Revolution and Beyond the Blue Zone. With over 10 years of experience working with today’s leading alternative and anti-aging doctors, Jason shares his insider status and access to the latest breakthroughs with thousands of readers from around world.
Begley, S. “Records Found in Dusty Basement Undermine Decades of Dietary Advice,” Scientific American. Apr 19, 2017.
“Trans Fats, but Not Saturated Fats, Linked to Greater Risk of Death and Heart Disease,” McMaster University, via Newswise.com. Aug 7, 2015.
Malhotra, A., “Saturated fat is not the major issue,” BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f6340.
Siri-Tarino, P.W., et al, “Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease,” Am J Clin Nutr. Mar 2010; 91(3): 502–509.
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