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An Updated Perspective on the Role of Saturated Fat

April 14, 2010

How many people still believe that the world is flat? And how many people believe that the sun revolves around the Earth? Not many, if any, I would guess. And yet it was once common wisdom that both statements were true. Even hundreds of years after astronomers were able to make the case for both a sun-centered universe and spherical shape of the Earth, many people stuck to the old myths and refused to acknowledge evidence-based science.

I just heard an old German proverb that seems so apt: “An old error is always more popular than a new truth.” Sometimes I feel we are in a similar situation when it comes to dietary fat, particularly saturated fat. Despite impressive and consistent scientific findings, all too many people continue to believe that eating saturated fat makes you fat and gives you heart disease.

This is interesting because until the end of the 19th century, the United States was still in large part an agrarian society and most Americans ate a diet that was meat based and high in saturated fat. It wasn’t until after World War II that all fat, including saturated fat, became a bugaboo. And not until1980 did the government tell people to limit their overall fat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake. The reasoning was that consuming all three caused heart disease.

If that reasoning were correct, it would stand to reason that heart disease and obesity would have declined in the last 30 years since people obediently cut their fat consumption? Has it? Of course not; in fact, obesity has skyrocketed and heart disease has not been stemmed. In large part, this is because when people tried to eat less fat, they almost inevitably ate more carbs, and not just any carbs. No, they ate the highly processed refined carbs, often in the form of junk foods. In fact, millions of people regularly gulp down statins and other drugs each day because their lifestyle choices (a high-carb diet and not enough exercise) have failed to improve their cholesterol profiles.

The assumption that eating fat makes you fat and that fat—and saturated fat, in particular—raises your cholesterol, leading to heart disease, is a comfortable old error, comparable to believing that the sun revolves around the Earth. As Gary Taubes points out in his myth-busting book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, there’s actually no evidence to implicate dietary fat in obesity or dietary cholesterol to heart disease. It seems logical so we may want to believe it, but neither premise withstands scientific scrutiny.

Saturated fatty acids (SFA), found in meat, poultry, dairy products and coconut and palm oil, remains solid at room temperature, unlike monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Even as there seems to be a slow and begrudging shift to acknowledging that dietary fat is not the villain in our ever-expanding national waistline—and that sugary, starchy processed foods play a major role—saturated fat is still painted as the baddie. We beg to differ. Here are myth-busting results of recent research that will reassure you—and your doubting friends—that the Atkins stance on SFA is perfectly healthy. Sat fat is actually beneficial as part of a balanced intake of natural fats. Hopefully, it won’t take hundreds of years before people see the light!

The current rationale for decreasing SFA intake is to reduce the concentration of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood. The recommendation to reduce SFA intake to 10 percent of total calories or less never took into account the likelihood that changes in dietary habits would increase carbohydrate consumption to levels that are not beneficial. Nor does data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) show that reducing SFA intake has any effect in reducing the incidence of obesity or diabetes. Likewise, large research trials such as the Women’s Health Initiative showed that following recommendations to reduce dietary fat in general had limited effects. You cannot look at fat intake in isolation. Carbohydrate intake is key to understanding the relation of SFA intake to risk for cardiovascular disease.

Studies show that when people follow a low-carb diet—although it is relatively high in SFA—their blood lipid profiles look very different from those seen in people who consume a diet of moderate to high carbohydrate content. The latter generally look much worse. In simple terms, this means that eating a high-fat diet is a health risk only if you are also eating enough carbohydrate to keep you from burning fat for energy, and therefore unable to lose weight.

Paradoxically, if you follow a low-carb diet like Atkins, despite increased SFA intake, you typically experience a significantdecrease in blood levels of saturated fat. How can this be? Recent work from controlled-feeding studies in the laboratory of Dr. Jeff S. Volek at the University of Connecticut (a coauthor of The New Atkins for a New You), indicate that altering the fat mix of a very-low-carb diet, as we do when we emphasize whole foods, to a mix of MUFA's, SFA's, and omega-3 fatty acids significantly decreases the amount of SFA in the blood plasma and has other beneficial effects.

You can rest assured that the research supports the new truth that in the context of a low-carb diet, there is no risk to consuming natural fat, including saturated fat.

Register with Atkins today for additional tips, low carb recipes, and ideas on how to overcome your weight loss plateau.

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