Butter My Biscuits!

Serious Questions About Saturated Fat Guidance

Julia Child may have had it right. Way back in 1990, she had serious questions about dietary guidance to avoid saturated fat. At a food event in 1990, she described the response to her renowned cooking:

“I hear them saying, ‘Here comes Julia, with all the cream and butter.’

“Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don’t suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”

Thirty years later, a group of respected scientists tell us that U.S. dietary guidance has lost touch with what the scientific evidence actually says about saturated fat.

Resistant to New Evidence

From their very beginning in 1980, the dietary guidelines were staunchly anti-fat. This was the dawn of the low-fat diet era. But that era proved to be a bit of a bust for dietary health. Even so, the worst of all of the fat was saturated fat. Various epidemiologic studies point to a connection between saturated fat and heart disease. When it became undeniable that low-fat diets were not a panacea, the guidance to avoid saturated fats endured.

Now, writing in Nutrients, Arne Astrup and colleagues say this is a mistake:

“The last decade has seen nearly 20 papers reviewing the totality of the data on saturated fats and cardiovascular outcomes, which, altogether, have demonstrated a lack of rigorous evidence to support continued recommendations either to limit the consumption of saturated fatty acids or to replace them with polyunsaturated fatty acids. These papers were unfortunately not considered by the process leading to the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

In short, the 40-year-old guidance to avoid saturated fat across the board is out of date. That’s because it fails to consider the source of the fat. It also neglects the importance of how the fat fits into an overall dietary pattern. Both of these factors are critically important for the healthfulness of a person’s diet.

Stomp It Out

Beliefs about nutrition and health can become cultish. A new finding that runs counter to established dogma will crash into defenders of that dogma working to “stomp it out.”

It is becoming plain to see that saturated fat from different sources (e.g., dairy) in different diets can have very different effects on health. Dietary guidance on saturated fat needs to catch up with the evidence.

Click here for the new paper by Astrup et al and here for a recent state of the art review in JACC.

Butter My Biscuits! Photograph © Karon Elliott Edleson / flickr

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September 24, 2021

2 Responses to “Serious Questions About Saturated Fat Guidance”

  1. September 24, 2021 at 8:29 am, Mary-Jo said:

    As a dietitian, as much as I appreciate and rely on research and expert consensus ‘guidelines’, I have found taking a more ‘gestalt’ approach when advising people on diet and nutrition, works best in helping them achieve health-promoting goals and results. People who would eat a box or 2 of Snackwell cookies with a liter of fat-free milk just to feel satiated because they were told to eat less sat-fat foods just didn’t make sense to me.

  2. September 28, 2021 at 12:14 pm, David Brown said:

    What troubles me is the lack of interest in the two nutrients that appear to be causing most of the chronic inflammatory conditions that people die from these days; linoleic acid and arachidonic acid. Nutritionally speaking, there are three possible problems that give rise to disease; excess, deficiency, and imbalance. The impact of excessive intake of biologically active molecules such as the omega-6 family of polyunsaturated fats cannot be cancelled by adding biologically active omega-3 molecules to achieve balance. For example, “Combining reduction of the intake of arachidonic acid (AA) with enhancement of the intake of oleic acid will, moreover, also be a better strategy for reducing the total extent of in vivo lipid peroxidation, rather than adding more EPA (with 5 double bonds) and DHA (with 6 double bonds) to a diet already over-abundant in arachidonic acid and linoleic acid.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875212/