The surprising truth about saturated fats

by Cherie Calbom, M.S.

This article was originally published in February 2006

Image of butter and a tablepoon of oil, cover artwork for February 2006 Sound Consumer

(February 2006) — Saturated fats always were considered a healthy part of human nutrition until the mid-1900s. The experts declared “fats are good” and even recommended them for treating serious medical conditions such as tuberculosis and epilepsy.

Then suddenly, after World War II, we were told just the opposite — to cut fat, especially saturated fat, if we wanted to maintain healthy weight and prevent heart disease. Marketers of low-fat foods championed this concept in the media. Few people questioned why foods eaten for centuries suddenly were blamed for causing heart disease.

But drastically reducing saturated fats from the modern diet has not solved our health problems. Obesity is at an all-time high as is heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. The doctrine of low-fat eating has lost credibility.

In fact, quality saturated fats are important for good health. It’s time to revisit what changed in the American diet and precipitated a sudden rise in heart disease.

Saturated fat — theory versus fact
Prior to the 1920s, heart disease caused no more than 10 percent of all deaths in the United States. By the 1950s it claimed more than 30 percent of all deaths. Researchers began looking for the cause of this new threat to health. Anti-fat theories began.

Some suggested that cholesterol was the problem. Much of the hypothesis was based on a study examining arterial plaques in American soldiers who had died during the Korean War. High levels of cholesterol were found and some researchers started looking at cholesterol in foods such as meat, shellfish, cheese, eggs and butter as a possible cause.

Soon a “lipid (fat) hypothesis” was formed and traditional foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol were “out” and the new vegetable oils were “in.” Tropical oils — though they have no cholesterol — were targeted as detrimental because they contain saturated fats. The public became scared of anything containing saturated fat.

Was the hypothesis true? A number of heart disease studies that followed indicated differently. The Anti-Coronary Club Project, launched in 1957 and published in 1966 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared two groups of New York businessmen 49 to 59 years old.

One group followed a “Prudent Diet” with corn oil and margarine instead of butter, cold cereal rather than eggs, and chicken and fish instead of beef. A control group ate eggs for breakfast and meat three times per day.

The report noted that the cholesterol levels of those on the Prudent Diet averaged 30 points lower than the control group eating eggs and meat, but there were eight deaths from heart disease among the Prudent Dieters and no deaths from heart disease in the control group.

In 1965 The British Medical Journal published another study that involved patients who already had heart attacks. One group consumed corn oil, another group olive oil, and the third group ate saturated animal fats. After two years, the corn oil group had 30 percent lower cholesterol, but only 52 percent remained alive. The olive oil group fared better with 57 percent alive. But in the group that ate saturated animal fats, 75 percent still were alive.

The truths pointed out by these studies largely were ignored by the mainstream and the anti-fat theory prevailed, disregarding the beneficial role that saturated fats play in health and that population studies did not support the theory.

The role of saturated fats
Quality saturated fats have many important roles in body chemistry. They are essential to good health.

  • Saturated fatty acids constitute at least 50 percent of cell membranes. They give our cells necessary firmness and integrity.
  • Saturated fats play a vital role in the health of our bones — at least 50 percent of our dietary fats need to be saturated for calcium to be incorporated effectively into the skeletal structure.
  • They lower Lp(a), a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease.
  • They protect the liver from the toxic effects of alcohol and certain drugs.
  • They enhance the immune system.
  • They are needed for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.
  • Saturated 18-carbon stearic acid and 16-carbon palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated. The heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress. If your heart doesn’t have a supply of quality saturates to draw upon when under stress, it would help explain the rise in heart attacks.
  • Short- and medium-chain fatty acids (categorized as saturated) have important antimicrobial properties. They protect us against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.

Many researchers recently have rejected the “lipid (fat) theory” as a cause of heart disease. They point out that more than 60 percent of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels, and the majority of people with high cholesterol levels never have heart attacks.

A study conducted at the Wynn Institute for Metabolic Research in London examined the composition of human aortic plaques. This study found that the artery-clogging fats in those who died from heart disease were composed of 26 percent saturated fat and 74 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids.

They determined no association with saturated fats, but rather implicated polyunsaturated fatty acids — such as those found in corn, soy, safflower and sunflower oils — as the primary contributors to aortic plaque formation. They suggested that current recommendations caution people to avoid these oils completely.

The American Heart Association has discovered that people with heart disease all have one thing in common — inflammation. So, research today is focused on the following contributors to heart disease: (1) inflammation, (2) oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated oils), which promote inflammation, (3) damaged fats — particularly trans-fats found in margarine, snack foods and fried foods, (4) blood clots, (5) high blood pressure, and (6) high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood. The facts of history also seem to have played a role, directly or indirectly.

Historic changes and heart disease
When the Japanese occupied most of the Philippines and the South Pacific during World War II, supplies of coconut oil were cut off for several years. Before then, coconut oil was used for cooking and in most snack foods. Americans were forced to turn to alternative sources of cooking oils, and polyunsaturates became the popular choice of the day.

After the war, butter consumption declined while the use of vegetable oils — especially oils that had been hardened to resemble butter by a process called hydrogenation — increased dramatically.

By 1950 butter consumption had dropped from 18 pounds per person per year to just over 10. Margarine filled the gap, rising from about two pounds per person at the turn of the century to about eight, and vegetable oil consumption more than tripled — from about three pounds per person per year to more than 10.

This huge increase in polyunsaturated oil and margarine consumption now is believed to have contributed to the rapid rise in heart disease. But the information concerning the impact of these oils on health has crept rather quietly onto the information highway, while sales of polyunsaturated oils remain strong.

The seed oil industry has spent millions convincing Americans their products are better. The medical community also may be reluctant to admit it’s been wrong.

Saturated fats have a long history of use in traditional cultures because they’re stable fats that do not oxidize easily and turn rancid. Numerous studies have not implicated them in heart disease.

Numerous studies, however, have implicated refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils and trans fats, which many Americans consume daily. Polyunsaturated oils are particularly unstable and oxidize easily. Oxidized oils are toxic and can cause widespread free-radical damage, which is implicated in heart disease and cancer.

Vegetable- and seed-based oils have been around for less than 100 years and their rise in popularity in the 1950s parallel a drastic increase in heart disease. Heart disease took a giant leap after World War II — that’s irrefutable. What changed was the type of fats we consume.

Reducing saturated fats from our diet has not solved our health problems. Traditional, quality saturates such as ghee, unbleached, virgin coconut oil and grass-fed dairy and meat may be more important than the conventional wisdom allows.

Cherie Calbom, M.S., is the author of 15 books including best sellers “The Coconut Diet” and “Juicing for Life.” Cherie earned a masters degree in nutrition from Bastyr University, where she now serves on the Board of Regents.

For more information

Felton C.V., Crook D., Davies M.J., Oliver M.F. Wynn Institute for Metabolic Research, London, UK. “Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and composition of human aortic plaques.” Lancet. Oct. 1994; 29;344(8931):1195-6.

G. Cristakis, “Effect of the Anti-Coronary Club Program on Coronary Heart Disease Risk-Factor Status,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 7, 1966, 198:(6):129-35.

Rose G.A., Thomson W.B., Williams R.T. “Corn oil in treatment of ischaemic heart disease,” British Medical Journal 1965;1:1531-3.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, February 2006

Microwaved food, Access to pasture, For the anonymous customer, and more

News bites, February 2006

Water fight, Not all donuts are equal, Wine world in ferment, and more