f I tried to tell you today that the earth is flat you would laugh at me because you know that we have sent men into space and the earth’s shape has been photographed. It is most definitely round – near as I can tell. Despite this, the theory/myth that the earth is flat was commonly held for centuries. It sure looks flat when you look out at the horizon.
So it is with fat. The notion that saturated fats and cholesterol are bad for you has pervaded modern thinking despite clear-cut information to the contrary. It seems logical that fat would clog arteries and make you fat, doesn’t it? I can understand how this rumor got started, but what is the truth?
In his well-researched book, Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Prevent Heart Disease, David Evans, a researcher who also blogs at Healthy Diets and Science provides evidence from 101 scientific papers representing a huge body of research indicating that in fact, far from causing heart disease in humans, eating a diet rich in saturated fats may actually prevent heart disease. You heard me right.
It turns out that there is a strong likelihood that animal fats may actually be good for you. Having spent the past month eating more animal fat than I have in my life, I would tend to agree, based on my health improvements. I just feel better. My blood sugar is consistently within the normal range now and my weight is down by a few pounds. In addition, my appetite is more well-controlled and I am sleeping better.
While some studies cited in Evans’ book are epidemiological in nature, meaning that they look at trends across population groups rather than double-blind scientific experiments, there is plenty of data that points to a reduction in heart disease risk as intake of healthy animal fats goes up.
Here are just a few studies cited that stand out to me:
A 6-year study of nearly 22,000 men who were initially free of heart disease, but were smokers between the ages of 50-69, (a high risk group) was conducted by researchers in Finland. Those who consumed the highest level of saturated fats had a 27% decrease in coronary death and a 13% decrease in coronary events when compared with the group that ate the least amount of saturated fats and the highest amount of man-made polyunsaturates (margarines and oils).1
A study of healthy young men (only 10 participants), but well-controlled, measured post-meal blood triglycerides as a risk factor. The research showed that butter, which is higher in saturated fats, induced the lowest rise in post-meal triglycerides when compared with olive oil or sunflower oil.2
A large epidemiological study of 1 million men in different parts of India revealed that those in regions where fat consumption (mainly animal fats) was 19 times higher, had a decreased incidence of heart disease – 7% less.3
While dietary studies are notoriously challenging, there have been many studies linking increases in carbohydrate consumption and insulin levels to heart disease. Conversely, studies of those with high fat consumption have only yielded rises in HDL (the good cholesterol). The bottom line is, there is no proof that saturated fats lead to heart disease and there is some evidence that the higher the diet is in fat, the more heart disease rates decline.
In David Evans’ book, he highlights the study that fostered the myth of the lipid hypothesis which was conducted by Ancel Keys (also known as the Seven Countries Study) and provides evidence that points out it could have just as easily proven that saturated fats provide protection against heart disease.
The seven countries Keys based his research on were the ones that provided data that conveniently fit with his hypothesis. Had Keys selected seven other countries out of the 20+ countries he initially surveyed, he could have drawn the complete opposite conclusion. Also, the seven countries study had very few scientific controls in place and the methodology for collecting information was not stringent enough to qualify for sound scientific research today. (More to come about this topic in my new eBook, Go Paleo! A Shopping Survival Guide.)
David Evans’ book is filled with additional tidbits of research that, when taken together, paint a clear picture that shows animal fats and other saturated fats are not the culprit in heart disease after all. He is not alone in this belief and it would be great if research could be done with Paleo / Primal eaters in the future. Saturated fats from grass fed and pasture raised animals have quite a different fatty acid profile.
Footnotes and additional related reading
1. 1997 Journal of Epidemiology 145(10):876-887
2. 2002 Journal of Nutrition Dec: 132 (12) : 3642-9
3. 1967 British Heart Journal 29, 895
About the Author: Wendy J. Schwartz is a graduate of New York University and holds a BS and an MS Degree in Food and Nutrition. During her early career, she worked at both Mt. Sinai Hospital and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Wendy is currently a member of the Nutritional Therapy Association. She is the author of the upcomingPaleo Shopping Survival Guide and is currently creating a large, free online US resource for Paleo consumers. Her blog, Go Paleo!, can be visited at http://www.gopaleo.com.