Buttered Corn

Mangled Messages about Saturated Fats

Depending on what you read, you might be firm in your faith that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats is a good strategy for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Or your might wonder about sensational ideas advanced by health reporters like Sandy Hingston and Nina Teicholz.

Hingston says “USDA screwed up the American diet – and deprived me of so much delicious butter.” Teicholz ginned up a best seller (The Big Fat Surprise) with her claim that “more, not less, dietary fat — including saturated fat — is what leads to better health, wellness, and fitness.”

At FNCE yesterday, Alice Lichtenstein and Carol Kirkpatrick very carefully explained that the science of the cardiovascular risk presented by saturated fats has not really changed. What has changed is the understanding that the recommendations to consume less saturated fat can have unintended consequences. Those consequences come from the food that replaces the fat. Lichtenstein summarized:

Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat appears to be a useful strategy.

But somewhere along the line, the message shifted to low fat, which was not such a good idea because of the increase in refined carbohydrates that followed.

So Teicholz is half right when she finds fault with low fat recommendations that most everyone has already abandoned. But her sensational claims about saturated fat don’t really hold up to careful scrutiny.

What does hold up well is an overall healthy pattern of eating that includes healthful fats. The idea is that whole diets matter more than individual nutrients in isolation. The Mediterranean diet is an obvious example of a healthy dietary pattern backed by good evidence.

Teicholz disputes the idea that her claims are sensational. She told ConscienHealth:

Indeed, over the past five years, there have been some 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews finding that saturated fats have no effect on cardiovascular mortality and no association with heart disease. These findings have been largely ignored or dismissed by nutrition experts, perhaps because they remain attached to their theory that these fats cause disease.

However, the meta-analyses Teicholz references did not consistently distinguish between replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats and replacing them with carbs. The results are different. Replacing saturated fats with carbs is unhelpful. Replacing them with unsaturated fats is beneficial. 

Nutrition science often leaves room for debate. The debate is more meaningful when guided by facts.

Click here for Lichtenstein’s slides and here for Kirkpatrick’s.

Buttered Corn, photograph © Tim Sackton / flickr

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October 19, 2016

5 Responses to “Mangled Messages about Saturated Fats”

  1. October 19, 2016 at 7:33 am, Juliet Mancino said:

    Great post Ted. Thanks for excellent FNCE reports. Amazing how certain messages take hold and others don’t and all of the forces at play.

  2. October 19, 2016 at 12:48 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks, neighbor!

  3. October 19, 2016 at 1:25 pm, Stephen Phillips said:

    TED you are spot-on regarding Mangled Messages About Saturated Fats

    Scientific significance often overshadows the need for human significance
    Fat is an essential nutrient …not a health enemy
    Our bodies contain both saturated and unsaturated fats.
    It is no wonder that we seek and enjoy both.
    The “good fat, bad fat” science controversy is voluminous and endless.
    From a human perspective it is difficult to be a mindful eater and savor each morsel with this enduring controversy looming over us.
    If ever a nutrient has been “wronged” and in need of an anti-defamation league, it would be fat.
    My suggestion regarding saturated vs.unsaturated fat is to be an “equal opportunity consumer”

    Stephen Phillips
    American Association of Bariatric Counselors

  4. October 19, 2016 at 1:58 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks, Stephen!

  5. October 20, 2016 at 11:04 am, David Brown said:

    Be an “equal opportunity consumer” of saturated and unsaturated fats? Not sure what that means. We know that the requirement for the essential omega-3s and 6s is somewhat less than 1% of energy needs. Moreover, they need to be consumed in roughly equal amounts so as to achieve a balance of anti-inflammatory and inflammatory eicosanoids. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eicosanoid

    As for saturated fats, the anti-saturated fat enthusiasts tell us to swap (unspecified) saturated fats for linoleic acid (LA) to reduce risk for heart attack. The American Heart Association says, “In prospective observational studies, dietary LA intake is inversely associated with CHD risk in a dose-response manner. These data provide support for current recommendations to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat for primary prevention of CHD. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2014/08/26/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.010236

    While this advice is controversial, the debate remains entirely behind the scenes. Quote: “Is a particular dietary recommendation harming people in the U.S.? For almost 20 years, scientists have been arguing over whether Americans and others on a typical Western diet are eating too much of omega-6s, a class of essential fatty acids. Some experts, notably ones affiliated with the American Heart Association, credit our current intake of omega-6s with lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Others, which include biochemists, say the relatively high intake of omega-6 is a reason for a slew of chronic illnesses in the Western world, including asthma, various cancers, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease itself.” http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=18365

    I’ve been following this debate for 7 years. There is virtually no media coverage. Why? Because almost everyone is programmed to believe that saturated fats are problematic for health. Google – “S. L. Malhotra BMJ AJCN” to access research from 1967- 1973 by a physician in India who had things pretty well sorted. Then read this article which says, “Clarified butter remained India’s culinary star for centuries till it was sidelined in the 1980s by vegetable oils because of its high saturated fat. The new oils were aggressively marketed as superior and heart-healthy. Of late, research has shown that saturated fats have no link to obesity, heart disease or early death.” http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/Ghee-with-glee/articleshow/52057801.cms

    There are numerous clues suggesting that American Heart Association dietary advice is problematic.This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a New York Times article about primate obesity research.

    Dr. Hansen, who has been doing research on obese monkeys for four decades, prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world’s heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate “nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet,” she said. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/health/20monkey.html

    If you Google – “Frances Sladek linoleic acid” you’ll find an article that says, “The incidence of obesity in the U.S. has increased from 15% to 35% in the last 40 years and is expected to rise to 42% by 2030. Paralleling this increase in obesity are a number of dietary changes, most pronounced of which is a >1000 fold increase in consumption of soybean oil from 0.01 to11.6 kg/yr/capita from 1909-1999: soybean oil consists of 50-60% linoleic acid (LA), so the energy intake from LA has increased from 2% to >7%/day. LA is an essential fatty acid and a precursor to arachidonic acid, which is linked to inflammation, a key player in obesity, diabetes, cancer, etc. Another component of the American diet that has increased substantially in the last four decades is fructose, primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods and sodas. The roles of both LA and fructose in the current obesity epidemic are under intense scrutiny but are not well understood and seldom compared side-by-side.”

    Another quote from the New York Times article on primate obesity research.

    Dr. Grove and researchers at some other centers say the high-fructose corn syrup appears to accelerate the development of obesity and diabetes.“It wasn’t until we added those carbs that we got all those other changes, including those changes in body fat,” said Anthony G. Comuzzie, who helped create an obese baboon colony at the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio.

    While the truth about saturated fats has been mangled beyond recognition, the truth about omega-6 linoleic acid is simply swept under the table.