June 4, 2013

Saturated Fat Vindicated! (...Yet Again!)

“This idea that the saturated fats are going to be bad for you never had any real validity.”
                                                -Dr. Glen Lawrence, Superhuman Radio Show, 5/22/2013

Y’know how I’m always saying wacky things that could get me excommunicated from mainstream NutritionLand, such as, saturated fats are good for you, cholesterol in our food doesn’t automatically lodge itself inside our arteries, and the newfangled, highly processed vegetable oils are far more damaging to our health than the good ol’, natural, chemically stable saturated fats? (You know…the ones found in such delicious things as butter, beef, cheese, coconut oil, and bacon?) Well, lookey lookey, Glen Lawrence, PhD, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Long Island University, agrees with me.

He published a paper last month titled Dietary Fats and Health: Dietary Recommendations in the Context of Scientific Evidence, in the journal Advances in Nutrition, and boy, am I glad he did! There was so much great stuff in the paper that I knew it would make a fantastic addition to my Fat Tuesday posts. (I know, you’ve all been on the edge of your seats waiting for me to resurrect this series, amiright?)

There’s a lot to digest here—no pun intended—so let’s get to it.

To start off, I’ve got to share a few lines from the paper itself. These are from the conclusion, way at the end, which is a shame because I think they’d make a killer intro:

“The lack of any clear evidence that saturated fats are promoting any of the conditions that can be attributed to PUFA [polyunsaturated fatty acids] 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.”


Indeed, it does make me wonder how saturated fatty acids (SFAs) got such a bad rap, considering the lack of evidence that they do anything negative beyond making foods so frikkin’ yummy that it’s darn near impossible to stop cramming them down our pieholes. (Especially when said pies have crusts made with lard, hehheh.) According to Dr. Lawrence:

“The role of dietary fats in cardiovascular disease (CVD) and many other diseases is complex, yet there is a powerful inertia that has allowed the saturated fat doctrine to endure.”

Excuse me? Inertia? I-NER-TIA? Inertia’s okay for perpetual motion machines, balls rolling down hills, and other fun stuff in the physics lab, but it is a terrible thing upon which to base public health recommendations. Inertia should not dictate our standards of care. Inertia is not a suitable excuse for burying our heads in the sand and stubbornly sticking to outdated medical and nutritional paradigms when evidence emerges that shows those paradigms to be incorrect. 

Imagine for a second if we still saw ads like this in magazines:

OT: This guy totally looks like my late grandfather!

What if, even long after we knew the total and complete havoc smoking wreaks on our bodies, doctors still recommended it for relaxation and whatever else its supposed benefits were? What if their defense was, “Well, we’ve been recommending cigarettes for so darn long, we can’t stop now. There’s just too much inertia.

Dr. Lawrence was on one of my favorite radio shows right after his paper came out, and he had the guts to come right out and explain that it’s all about protecting professional images. After all, if you’ve based your career on one particular interpretation of something, and you’ve spent decades passing this same interpretation on to hundreds (possibly thousands) of patients and/or students, and then you find out you’ve been wrong all along, it can’t be easy to admit it. Maybe you’ll lose your grant money. Or your department chairmanship. Or every last shred of your credibility. So yeah, not an easy road to travel, but one that must be traveled when we’re dealing with…oh, I dunno…PEOPLE’S LIVES.

In light of the blinding blow to the nuts our healthcare costs are delivering to the U.S. economy, please tell me I’m not alone in thinking that if biochemical facts indicate that saturated fats do not cause heart disease, then it’s high time groups like the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the ADA…the organization that ordains Registered Dieticians), and the USDA change their formal recommendations regarding intake of these nutrients. (Yes, fats are nutrients, and don’t let anyone tell you different. More on that later.)

Lawrence was interviewed recently on Carl Lanore’s Superhuman Radio. (Please, please, don’t let the craziness of the website fool you. This show is BEYOND LEGIT. I’ve been listening for a couple of years now and Carl Lanore is outstanding. You can also get it via iTunes. Dr. Lawrence’s interview was the second half of this particular episode.) Here’s how part of it went down:

Carl: “Why aren’t more people picking up on this message and going, ‘Y’know, maybe we were wrong.’”

Dr. Lawrence: “There’s this kind of clique of people in the biomedical field who, y’know, they support one another. They’ve been spouting this doctrine of low saturated fat, low fat diets for so many years, and they don’t want to admit that they’re wrong.”

So there you have it, directly from someone immersed in the field. I hope they don’t kick him out of the club and steal his lunch money. But if they do, he’ll be in good company, considering a bunch of other researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition back in 2010 that stated things in even sterner terms than his does:

“There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.”


“Despite the conventional wisdom that reduced dietary saturated fat intake is beneficial for cardiovascular health, the evidence for a positive, independent association is lacking.”

Seriously. It kinda makes my blood boil. Most biochemists will tell you that saturated fats are the most chemically stable, and are therefore the least likely to be involved in atherosclerosis (plaques forming inside blood vessels). The most chemically stable? The least susceptible to oxidation?

From the interview:

Carl: “Saturated fat cannot undergo lipid peroxidation.”

Dr. Lawrence: “No, they don’t. They’re completely stable, and so they’re the best things to be frying with.”

Saturated fats are the safest ones to cook with? Funny, I feel like I’ve seen that somewhere before. Now where was it? Hmmm…Oh, that’s right, right here on this blog!

Okay, before this post becomes even longer than my usual offerings, I’ll leave you with a preview of what’s to come as I share the awesome details of Dr. Lawrence’s paper in upcoming posts:

  • He addresses what’s known in the scientific world as confounding. This is when some other factor(s) besides the specific one(s) you’re looking at are actually causing the results you observe. (An example I’ve seen used a lot to explain this issue is, whenever people eat more ice cream, there are more shark attacks. Therefore, eating ice cream causes shark attacks. Right? No. There’s a third factor that hasn’t been considered here: people generally eat more ice cream in the summertime, and they also tend to go to the beach and swim in the ocean more in summertime. The increase in shark attacks has nothing to do with ice cream.) Another example would be a study where they follow two groups of people, separated by height, for twenty years and see who ends up getting cancer of the mouth. At the end of the study, more people in the tall group had cancer than in the short group, so they conclude that being tall is a risk factor for oral cancer. But what they didn’t account for was the fact that more people in the tall group used chewing tobacco than in the short group. The cancer is completely unrelated to height. In the case of the paper at hand, Dr. Lawrence brings up the issue of carbohydrate intake confounding the data in several studies that seem to show a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. (Nutshell version: we often eat our saturated fats with grain-based carbs, as in butter on bread, cream cheese on a bagel, hamburgers on buns, cheese on crackers. Very few studies ever isolate the effects of dietary saturated fats without carbohydrates.)
  • Kind of related to the previous point, he mentions that a lot of the data on red meat (which is sometimes used as a proxy for saturated fat even though beef, for example, is loaded with the same type of MONOUNsaturated fat found in olive oil) is often lumped together with data on processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, bologna, etc.), and how it’s much more likely the additives and preservatives in these foods that are contributing to any negative effects researchers find, rather than the meats themselves. (Not to mention we often eat our processed meats with carbohydrates, a la hot dog on a bun, bologna on a sandwich, sausages with pancakes. Separating these factors isn’t easy, so sometimes researchers just don’t bother. Nice, huh?)
  • He talks about the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and how, based on their chemical structures and clear-cut biochemical mechanisms in our bodies, they are much more likely to cause heart disease than saturated fats. This is a very big deal, and I'll talk about why in a post dedicated solely to that. (Nutshell again: it has to do with those pesky, unstable double bonds that make them subject to oxidation.)
  • He talks about the good things saturated fats do for us, especially the short and medium-chain saturated fatty acids found in things like coconut and palm kernel oils, and dairy fats (butter, cream, yogurt, milk [not fat free or skim! We're talking about the fat, people!]). Yes, fats are more than just a source of energy (or “calories,” to use the term you might be more familiar with when we talk about the chemical energy stored in food). They’re antimicrobial, antiviral, do not promote inflammation, and are a great source of quick energy.
  • He addresses the connections between saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels, but does us the wonderful service of breaking down the discussion into HDL vs LDL, particle size, and triglycerides—and even more important, tells us that cholesterol levels ain’t all they’re cracked up to be anyway. (Especially not total cholesterol, or even LDL-C, which is sometimes all our doctors bother to look at. Don’t believe me? Take a few minutes and read this, this, and then this. Lots of reading? Not that much. Chris Kresser is way more succinct than I am, and his info just might save your life.)

Okay kids, that’s enough for now. More to come on this. Dr. Lawrence had some real zingers in this paper and I can’t wait to share ‘em with you.

Happy eating, folks. Happy eating.

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