The Debate

The Debate on Saturated Fat: Great or Tiresome?

Should dietary guidelines tell the public to eat as little saturated fat as possible? This is definitely a hot debate. But we’re not so sure it’s a great one. Perhaps it’s just becoming tiresome. Regardless, what’s clear is that when top experts presented this debate at Nutrition Live Online, it was a great event. In fact, many folks will tell you it’s their favorite event of this virtual meeting of the American Society of Nutrition. More than 1,700 people signed up for the session.

Debated Live and Published Online

This debate is first in a new series from ASN and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The goal is a good one – to break through polarized discussions on hot topics in nutrition with rigorous, scientific dialogue. David Ludwig moderated the debate and serves as editor of this effort for the journal, where the proceedings appear.

Contention and Agreement

Points of Agreement and Disagreement in the Saturated Fats DebatePenny Kris-Etherton presented the argument for reducing saturated fats as much as possible. She stressed evidence that saturated fats tend to raise LDL cholesterol. Despite evidence that full fat dairy products can have benefits for heart health, she noted that they can raise LDL cholesterol.

Ron Krauss presented the opposing view. He contended that it’s possible, but far from definite, that across-the-board reductions in saturated fats will lead to better population health. Many different saturated fats are part of what we eat and they can each have different effects. It’s possible, he said, that blunt recommendations to reduce all saturated fats could have unintended consequences. Different foods that contain different saturated fats have different effects. Plus, saturated fats have different effects in different people.

You’ve heard it before. One size does not fit all – especially when it comes to nutrition.

Can We Focus on Whole Foods?

One point of agreement seems to be the need to focus on whole, nourishing foods and patterns for healthy eating. Considering individual nutrients in isolation becomes confusing and misleading. Especially when we’re dealing with some very different nutrients and lumping them all together under the label of “saturated fats.”

Both extremes of this debate are tiresome. On one side, folks are insisting on reducing saturated fats, whatever it takes. Whole fat dairy products are verboten. On the other side you have folks like Nina Teicholz touting diets high in saturated fat as a magical prevention tool for just about everything – including COVID-19.

The middle ground – focusing on whole, nourishing foods – makes much more sense. Perhaps this is a debate we should retire.

Click here for the debate. For the pro/con publications, click here, here, and here.

The Debate, photograph © Gabriel Caparó / flickr

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June 4, 2020

3 Responses to “The Debate on Saturated Fat: Great or Tiresome?”

  1. June 04, 2020 at 7:12 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I did like that both sides emphasized eating more wholesome and pointed out the importance of the link of good nutrition to health outcomes. I actually found the extreme views of very high fat, very low carb as being THE answer to good health outcomes, absent from both sides. On another note, Ted, I’ve been noticing that in a few presentations, the genetic contribution to obesity has been described in a ranges from as low as 20% TO 70%, which could be misleading to many in the group, affirming yet again, to many folks in that audience, that people with obesity are not doing enough to eat less and move more. Has anyone else picked up this or am I going crazy?

    • June 04, 2020 at 9:05 am, Ted said:

      Mary Jo, I am constantly struck by otherwise rational people being very resistant to accepting the well-established genetic basis for obesity. They reflexively tell me that genes are not destiny. This is very frustrating because it’s a false dichotomy.

  2. June 05, 2020 at 3:14 am, David Brown said:

    The genetic basis for obesity has been elucidated in this paper.

    From a layman’s perspective:

    Here is what one woman is doing to combat the problem.

    Here’s what T. Colin Campbell thinks of the saturated fat debate.