Saturated Fat Revisited

I want to start this post by saying that I am not a health expert. I am a software developer with an interest in health. I read a lot. I do my best to find the truth and filter out the nonsense. But I know there have been times I have gotten it wrong. Fortunately for me, I am also comfortable with changing my mind. Unlike many health bloggers, I don’t have a financial incentive to keep my beliefs constant as I learn more.

With that disclosure behind me, I decided months ago to revisit the few remaining arguments that I learned from the Paleo crowd to see if an older wiser version of myself would still find them persuasive.

Today I’ll tackle saturated fat.

Back in 2008, I was first exposed to the idea that the link between saturated fat and heart disease was made up. During the 2006-2008 time period, I was pounding the drum that the housing market and stock market were going to going to crash. Yet at the time, this was a crackpot position to hold. Most financial experts got it wrong. So I was primed to accept health arguments that claimed the health experts got it wrong.

Paleo stepped forward to fill that role initially. Then came the Weston A. Price crowd, followed by the Ray Peat dieters. Book after book was put out claiming the experts were wrong about saturated fat and that it was heart-healthy. Then the mainstream media started putting out stories that implied the link between saturated fat and heart disease that was once solid was now inconclusive.

As the years went by, I didn’t revisit this topic.

Then several months ago, I wanted to know if the estrogen in dairy that I was consuming in high quantities was affecting my hormone levels. I found convincing arguments both saying it was a concern and that it wasn’t. I wasn’t qualified to decide where the truth was, so I decided to cut my dairy intake by 90% to see if I felt any different. I don’t have any blood work, but I don’t think it made me feel any different.

While poking around on the dairy estrogen topic, YouTube decided to recommend some saturated fat videos. I fired them up and after watching a few, I decided this issue was not settled. There is still much disagreement on the topic. And most importantly, the critics of saturated fat make a persuasive argument.

You Do You

This is the point in the post where I would normally declare a winner and then state with confidence who I feel is correct. I’m not going to do that. I will say that I am now 80% persuaded by the anti-SF argument, whereas a year ago I was 100% persuaded by the pro-SF case.

When there is a decision I need to make and both sides are smart and make solid points, instead of trying to figure who is right, I flip it and ask if either side is wrong, what are the consequences?

If the anti-SF group is wrong and I replace those calories with lentils and tubers, then I’ll miss out on some tasty dairy and meat-based meals. If the pro-SF group is wrong, then I might die sooner from the #1 cause of mortality (heart disease).

As a risk-averse person that is no longer driven by food cravings (thank you Peasant Diet), I’m going to proceed as if saturated fat is directly linked to heart disease.

I am not saying it is true or saying what you should do. That is for you to decide. The reason for this post is to address a decade of health posts on this site where I confidently stated saturated fat was healthy. I don’t know that to be true anymore. It is likely to be false.

I am also not going to defend my position. I believe I am making my decision from incomplete knowledge. I am not trying to get it right. I am trying to not get it too wrong.


Add yours →

  1. Your thinking is right in line with N.N. Taleb’s.

    However, he uses big words like “ergodicity” and “statistical fat tails”, while you just say, “what happens if I’m wrong?”

  2. Some observations:

    1. Saturated fats are not all created equally. The fat composition of animals raised on GMO-based grains and other feeds indoors in stressful conditions in vast processing facilities is going to be far inferior to animals raised out of doors on traditional feeds.

    2. In a Ted talk (YouTube) a few years ago nutrition researcher Stephan Guyenet points out (my simplification) that in 19th C America heart disease was rare and people consumed traditional fats: butter, lard, tallow. Heart disease became prevalent starting in the 1920s. From the 1960s people started avoiding saturated fats on a huge scale. Yet heart disease is still extremely prevalent. The hypothesis of Guyenet is that is tied to the rise in consumption of industrial seed oils, which were introduced in the 1920s. These malnutrional foodstuffs heavily processed to make them usable and palatable (transfats). They are nowhere near as stable as traditional saturated fats and oxidise rapidly. Oxidised (=rancid) oils are toxic.

    3. Dietary research is really hard to do. Most of the epidemiological studies you see these days are based on surveys, which are notoriously unreliable. You’ll see a study claiming vegetarians thanks to their diet have less heart disease than meat-eaters. Well, it seems the vegetarians are more health conscious in general: they may exercise more, drink less alcohol, smoke less, spend more time out of doors, etc. You probably can’t attribute less heart disease in this cohort simply to lower consumption of animals fats. Vegetarianism could simply be a marker.

    4. The prevalence of heart disease in the US cannot be seen outside of the deteriorating living standards of Americans: falling incomes, increasing economic insecurity, huge debt burdens, astronomically high healthcare costs. Stress is a killer! See the YouTube talks by Dr Gabor Maté on the profound connection between stress and disease.

  3. I would suggest reading Dr. Malcolm Kendrick and his series about what cause heart disease (67 parts as of now).

    Shorts summaries about all posts in his series:

    It change thinking about all related to heart disease.

  4. @Colin – I know the anti-PUFA arguments well. I’m still avoiding them. And SF could be fine. It might be the quantity, it might be the type, it might stress, some combination, or even something else. Beats me.

    I’m humbled by the fact very smart people on either side disagree on this topic. I’m going to sit this debate out for a few years. I’ll eat some more lentils and yams. Get some blood work done. Compare. Reassess if needed.

  5. After a similar journey to yourself I tend to give more weight to the established view of saturated fat as potentially unhealthy. Those believing in the carbohydrate / insulin hypothesis have painted themselves into a corner and have no choice but to defend saturated fat – we need to eat something and protein stimulates insulin as well as carbohydrate.

    This makes the defence of saturated fat more of a necessary justification than a genuine scientific enquiry. When cholesterol rises on the high fat diet you are told that cholesterol doesn’t matter anyway. Before long you are believing in a vast medical and food industry conspiracy.

    After abandoning high fat and thriving on a peasant diet I no longer give credence to the carbohydrate / insulin hypothesis (at least not in my case), so the supporting arguments that I used to unthinkingly repeat have lost their power. All I see now is an unlikely alliance of maverick scientists, supplement sellers and crackpots, sticking to a failed hypothesis.

  6. @Mark – Well said. The side that has been pushing the SF is fine narrative for a decade has lost a lot of credibility over the years on other topics. Maybe I’ll do a full post explaining that statement, but I think long-time readers of this blog know what I am referring to.

    Whatever the truth might be, it is a topic too complicated for me to grasp. So I’m going to side with the establishment for now. If I am wrong, it has fewer downside consequences.

  7. Palmitate is the particularly egregious compound. But palmitate does not come from your diet, it comes from de novo lipogenesis. Palmitate is the sole fat the de novo lipogenesis makes — free palmitate.

    You know what drives de novo lipogenesis. And excess CHO in the diet is converted to palmitic acid.

    Some people (TOFI/metabolically unhealthy/carb intolerant) — require a very low carb or sometimes ketogenic diet in order to suppress their insulin so severely to turn them around metabolically.

    Some people have insulin responses to OGTT that are in the hundreds or even thousands (serum insulin at 30 minutes at 900 and at 60 minutes 1300). Enormous insulin responses to glucose.

    So, with regards to fat, we are back to the formula proposed by Hartroft and Porta in their 1968 edition of “Present Knowledge in Nutrition when they proposed that health and longevity are directly proportional to the dietary ratio of saturated fat compared to PUFAs.

    What about the essential fatty acids? They are absolutely critical to many biological functions. What you must understand, however, is that while these essential fatty acids are qualitatively so important, they are needed quantitatively in only very small amounts. The amounts needed on a daily basis are easily obtained from a diet containing significant quantities of vegetables, meat, fish and eggs. The only way a person could be deficient in essential fatty acids is to be eating a diet consisting largely of processed foods — particularly breads, cereals and pasta. There is absolutely no need to supplement your diet fish oils in an attempt to obtain your essential fatty acids.

  8. Carboyhdrate-insulin hypothesis is simply false, that’s 100% clear at this point. And saturated fat is “bad”, more so than sugar. But poison is in the dose. And it depends on it’s type and food it’s in. Same way sugar in fruit is ok, I’d say not much reason to avoid milk, butter etc. Certainly problematic in high fat moderate protein Keto crowd if they dismiss their high LDL as unimportant. I’d try to keep LDL in normal range. That’s the best marker really, as it directly correlates with cardiovascular event risk.
    The “bad fats” would be typically in pastry, all those fake solid “marmelades”. And processed meat, chips…but if LDL is ok, it’s ok.

  9. @Ondrej – Odd that your comment posted twice. I’m testing out a new plugin that allows commenters the ability to edit posts within 10 minutes of posting. I hope it isn’t messing things up. I removed the duplicate comment.

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