161219_tsf_bloghero_07There is much conjecture in the world of nutritional science over the role of saturated fats in diet and health.

Yet, more and more science prevails to dismantle the devil horns placed upon saturated fat’s head, as we understand that it ain’t as evil as we have been lead to believe.

A 2015 review article published in BMJ by Nina Teicholz addresses (among other things) whether the science informing the U.S. nutritional guidelines (and therefore, much of the world’s nutritional guidelines) about saturated fat intake is valid and unbiased. As it turns out, saturated fat hasn’t been given a fair go, and the health impacts of too much sugar have pretty much ignored until recent times.

So, when a news headline screams, “Saturated fat is good for you”, do we head out and slam back the saturated fat?

Before you do – it is wise to consider the quality of the food and the context in which it is eaten.

Saturated fat and cardiometabolic risk factors

The hot question of 2016 has been – is butter back? Well, according to a 2016 meta-analysis on butter, it is fine to enjoy in moderation, as part of a balanced, whole food diet, but should not be considered the sole miracle food for good health.1

Since, there has been a bit of hype about a study out of Norway claiming saturated fats are good for you.

The study from the University of Bergen studied 38 healthy men between 30 and 50 years over 12 weeks who were assigned to either a high-carb low-fat diet, or very low-carb high-fat diet.2

The results? It was positive for both, including changes in total and LDL cholesterol (decreased in low-fat high-carb group), and HDL cholesterol (increased in very low-carb high-fat group). And the very low-carb high-fat group saw improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors including ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, triglycerides, insulin and blood sugar.

The researchers concluded that while future studies are needed to ascertain which people or patients may need to limit foods high in saturated fats, “…most healthy people probably tolerate a high intake of saturated fat well, as long as the fat quality is good and total energy intake is not too high. It may even be healthy.”3

Food quality and context counts

Whilst any intervention trial would ideally have more people and run for longer, there are some good aspects of this study to consider – particularly the focus on consuming minimally processed foods.

Each of the diet arms were designed to be healthy and of high quality, rich in fresh and minimally processed nutrient-dense foods, including lots of vegetables, and low in refined and heavily processed and flour-based foods and added sugars. And the source of fats were from minimally processed sources such as butter, cream, and cold-pressed oils.

So, the participants enjoyed a mostly real, whole food diet. One that included whole or minimally processed sources of saturated fat, suggesting the positive results in both groups may be due to improvements food quality.

If saturated fat were instead being regularly served up in the form of KFC, meat pies and commercially prepared bakery goods, we would expect different health outcomes. Because the quality of the food and the context it is eaten is different. Deep-fried or heavily refined and processed foods offer little value to health.

And what you replace the saturated fat with makes a difference too.

It has been found that saturated fat is associated with less risk for all cause mortality than trans-fats and refined carbohydrates, but not quite as favourable as ‘healthy’ polyunsaturated fats; and that replacing heavily refined carbohydrates with some saturated fat can improve conditions like insulin resistance.5-7

And major meta-analyses have forced us to question the link between saturated fat consumption and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.4-6;8

So, as put by the University of Bergen lead study author Simon Nitter Dankel, “…the alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated. It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based products, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar.”

When eating saturated fat, enjoy whole food sources and enjoy in the context of a mostly real, whole food diet. Sources can include ethically raised, pasture-fed, free-range or organic meat, poultry and eggs, good quality dairy, and first cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil, as opposed to the heavily processed foods that contain some saturated fat.

However, it is important to remember that every person is different with a unique set of health requirements. If you have concerns, have a chat with your trusted health care practitioner. But overall, it seems improving health may be more to do with the quality of the food, and the context in which it is eaten, rather than the nutrient – like saturated fat – in isolation.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)

 

References:

  1. Pimpin L, Wu JHY, Haskelberg H, Del Gobbo L, Mozaffarian D 2016, ‘Is Butter Back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality’, PLoS ONE, vol. 11, no. 6.
  2. Veum, VL, Laupsa-Borge, J, Eng, Ø, Rostrup, E, Larsen, TH, Nordrehaug, JE, Nygård, OK, Sagen, JV, Gudbrandsen, OA, Dankel, SN, & Mellgren, G 2016, ‘Visceral adiposity and metabolic syndrome after very high-fat and low-fat isocaloric diets: a randomized controlled trial’, The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition.
  3. UIB 2016, Very-high-fat diet reversed obesity and disease risk, Press release, viewed 14 December 2016, <http://www.uib.no/en/node/103172>
  4. Chowdhury, R, Warnakula, S, Kunutsor, S, Crowe, F, Ward, HA, Johnson, L, Franco, OH, Butterworth, AS, Forouhi, NG, Thompson, SG, Khaw, K, Mozaffarian, D, Danesh, J, & Di Angelantonio, E 2014, ‘Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 160, no. 6, pp. 398-406.
  5. de Souza, RJ Mente, A Maroleanu, A Cozma, AI Ha, V Kishibe, T et al., 2015, ‘Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies’, British Medical Journal, no. 351, h3978.
  6. Schwab, U, Lauritzen, L, Tholstrup, T, Haldorssoni, T, Riserus, U, Uusitupa, M, & Becker, W 2014, ‘Effect of the amount and type of dietary fat on cardiometabolic risk factors and risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer: a systematic review’, Food & Nutrition Research, vol. 58.
  7. Wang, DD, Yanping, L, Chiuve, SE, Stampfer, MJ, Manson, JE, Rimm, EB, Willett, WC, Hu, FB, & Li, Y 2016, ‘Association of Specific Dietary Fats With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality’, JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 176, no. 8, pp. 1134-1145.
  8. Siri-Tarino, PW, Sun, Q, Hu, FB, & Krauss, RM 2010, ‘Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease’, The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 91, no. 3, pp. 535-546.