The claim that saturated fat isn’t actually bad for you has always been one of the most controversial parts of Paleo. Plenty of people are willing to accept that too much sugar is probably bad for you, or that olive oil is a healthy food, or that they need to be eating more vegetables, but butter? Lard? Tallow? Those are health foods?
Paleo arguments in favor of saturated fat range from the historical (plenty of traditional societies ate lots of saturated fat but enjoyed low rates of heart disease) to the biological (refined carbohydrates are much, much worse for your heart than any amount of butter). The bottom line is really that naturally-occurring saturated fat from whole foods is not dangerous.
Going over the whole Paleo case in favor of saturated fat could fill several books, though, so today, we’re just going to look at the most recent research.
The famous 2010 meta-analysis finding that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD" was something of a watershed moment in the research. Following up on that, in the past few years there’s been a proliferation of new research questioning almost everything we know about saturated fat – and a lot of it sounds very, very Paleo! So here’s a quick look at what’s been going on in the past few years:
Saturated Fat: It’s Complicated
One notable change lately is that studies have focused a little bit less on “saturated fat” in general. “Saturated fat” seems to just be too broad of a category to tell us anything really useful. Even Dr. David Katz, whom you might recognize as one of the great opponents of Paleo, explains that:
“The question being asked, it seems, is: Is saturated fat truly harmful? The right question is: Is all saturated fat created equal?
It is not. Saturated fat is not a compound, but a class of compounds. And we have long had strong indications that the class is home to both baby and bath water.”
Specifically, “saturated fat” covers several different types of fatty acids, like stearic acid, lauric acid (that’s the one in coconut oil), and myristic acid. All of these different fatty acids have different effects, and foods that contain “saturated fat” contain different combinations of them. So just studying “saturated fat” is so imprecise it’s almost useless.
What’s more, most actual foods contain more than one type of fat. Most animal fats are roughly equal parts saturated and monounsaturated. We know from the Omega-3/Omega-6 issue that the health effects of certain nutrients often depend on other nutrients. So unless you’re going around eating pure saturated fat supplements, what you really care about is how different foods, or better yet, different dietary patterns, affect health.
Two of the biggest source of saturated fat in the American diet are pizza and “grain-based desserts.” (e.g. packaged cookies, crackers, cakes, ice cream sandwiches, etc.) This means that in the American context, “a diet high in saturated fat” means “a diet high in junk food.” In terms of dietary patterns, this is obviously a bad one, but there’s a lot more going on there than the saturated fat!
So instead of looking at data about just “saturated fat,” here are some recent (post-2010) studies specifically looking at foods you might actually eat on Paleo.
Eggs are the poster child for highly nutritious foods that contain saturated fat, with both the nutrients and the fat located in the yolk together.
- In this study (2013), subjects on a moderate-carb (less than 30% of calories) diet, eggs actually reduced inflammation and improved blood lipid profiles.
Butter, Ghee, and Dairy Fat
Dairy fat in particular has come in for a lot of well-deserved exoneration lately: if there’s anything wrong with dairy, it’s the proteins and the carbohydrates, not the fat!
- This study (2010) found that dairy consumption was associated with lower risk of heart disease and stroke. And according to this one (2014), “Data pertaining to dairy fat were inconclusive, but point to a potential protective effect of full-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt on risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Fresh (not processed) Meat
Another welcome consequence of looking at whole foods rather than “saturated fat” has been a greater awareness of the distinction between fresh and processed meats.
- This study (2010) found that “Consumption of processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD and diabetes mellitus.” In other words, when you separate out the hot dogs and McRibs from the home-cooked chuck roast, all that “evil” red meat starts looking a lot less dangerous.
Saturated Fat and Food History
Another area that’s been getting more and more attention recently is the history of the low-fat crusade. Instead of asking “how do we know saturated fat is OK?” more people are asking “where did we get the idea that saturated fat is bad?” – and what they’re mostly finding is a tangle of marketing, political entanglements, and conflicts of interest, not necessarily good science.
If you want to read more about the history of saturated fat, it’s way too complicated to get into in one article, and this is a story that deserves to be told in full. Some book suggestions:
- Death by Food Pyramid (Denise Minger, 2014)
- The Big Fat Surprise (Nina Teicholz, 2014) (You can get a quick preview of her argument here).
Summing it Up
This review paper (2013) is free and very readable, and does a great job of summing up most of the recent developments:
“Saturated fats are benign with regard to inflammatory effects, as are the MUFAs. The meager effect that saturated fats have on serum cholesterol levels when modest but adequate amounts of polyunsaturated oils are included in the diet, and the lack of any clear evidence that saturated fats are promoting any of the conditions that can be attributed to PUFA makes one wonder how saturated fats got such a bad reputation in the health literature. The influence of dietary fats on serum cholesterol has been overstated, and a physiological mechanism for saturated fats causing heart disease is still missing.”
The author fingers excess PUFA, fructose, and sugar generally, as well as an imbalanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, for most of the diseases typically blamed on saturated fat. And really, that sounds a lot like the Paleo take!
Obviously, there’s still a lot of inertia and bias to overcome – people have been so used to avoiding saturated fat that it’s become almost automatic, and correcting the mistakes will take serious effort. But the tide finally seems to be turning in the right direction, with a focus on foods over nutrients, and an acknowledgement that “saturated fat” isn’t just one monolithic thing. And that’s always something to celebrate – maybe with a nice bowl of coconut ice cream to get all those healthy fats on your plate!