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Are Saturated Fats Really The Problem?

Beyond the new obsession with "good fats," what does fat do for our bodies and more specifically, is saturated fat really a problem?

he 1980s were marked by a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. We snacked on microwave popcorn, cereal, and low fat turkey sandwiches. But that all changed in the 1990s when the low carb craze took a hold of our nation. It was all about proteins in the form of meats and dairy. Traditional products like yogurt and chocolate were available in the low sugar or low carbohydrate variety.

Today we've fallen somewhere in between. Fat has gained some acceptance but it's the monounsaturated variety found in avocados, olive oil, and almonds. But beyond the new obsession with "good fats," what does fat do for our bodies and more specifically, who's to blame for America's obesity epidemic? According to Civil Eats, new studies show that saturated fats may not be as harmful as we might have thought.

In the not-so-distant past, the medical establishment considered all fats equally loathsome: all fats were created equal and they’re all bad for you. Things have changed in that quarter, if only slightly. You have no doubt heard the drumbeat of current medical thinking on fats: some fats are now good for you—olive oil and canola oil—but others are bad for you—trans fats and all saturated fats. That’s an improvement from the old cry, but far from the truth.

It seems that no matter how the story spins from the denizens of the anti-fat camp, one piece of their advice remains staunchly constant: “You should sharply limit your intake of saturated fats.” The next admonition will invariably be, “which have been proven to raise cholesterol and cause heart disease.” Their over-arching belief is that saturated fat is bad, bad, bad.

The Question of Fats

Civil Eats reported that the LA Times, shifted blame for the obesity epidemic.

"Fat is not the problem," says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases."

Our dependence on carbohydrates is largely due to a low fat craze gone seriously wrong. Today we get 55 percent of our calories from carbohydrates when we should be getting about half that. Carbs turn to sugar in our body if we don't burn it off immediately with exercise. Since today much of our time is spent at a desk rather than out in the fields, we're getting fatter every day and sugar is the culprit.

According to a study in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which researchers examined data from 21 different studies from across the world involving over 350,000 subjects, there isn’t a shred of evidence that saturated fat is associated with an increase in the risk of either coronary heart disease (CHD) or cardiovascular disease (CVD).

You read that right.

Our meta-analysis showed that there is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD,” wrote the researchers, led by Dr Ronald Krauss from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California.

According to Civil Eats:

[T]he link to cardiovascular disease is tenuous at best—the idea being that saturated fats raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels which in turn leads to cardiovascular disease. But according to the most recent studies, including one reported in the Los Angeles Times article, this is not true. “Contrary to what many expect—dietary fat intake is not directly related to blood fat. Rather, the amount of carbohydrates in the diet appears to be a potent contributor,” Marni Jameson writes.

An excellent 2004 paper entitled “Saturated Fats: What Dietary Intake?” made the following statement: “Whether a finite quantity of specific dietary saturated fatty acids actually benefits health is not yet known.”

A terrific conference entitled “Saturated Fat: What is the Evidence?” was put on by the Nutrition and Metabolism society (of which I am a member) as part of the 2008 Western Regional Obesity Course of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. I attended that conference and I can tell you the collective answer to the question “what is the evidence?” could be summed up in two words: Not much. (You can read an excellent report on that conference by Laura Dolson here )

What About Whole Grains?

But that doesn't mean that you should resume your Atkins Diet tomorrow. Let's be clear: not all carbohydrates are created equal. White carbohydrates should be eliminated, including white bread, pasta, candy, and most processed chips and cookies. Whole grains including rolled oats, barley, and brown rice along with carbs found in fruits and vegetables are essential. They contain fiber which has been proven time and time again to add years to your life because it improves digestion and keeps your system clean.

According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and especially whole grains lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases by 24 percent to 56 percent in men and by 34 percent to 59 percent in women.

High Protein Meat Based Diets Equal Higher All Cause Mortality

In fact, high protein, meat based diets have been proven to have a negative effect on longevity. The key to good health is good digestion because without it, things can't keep moving through your system and toxins build up, causing disease. That's why dietary fiber is so important to our health. Higher protein diets based on plant proteins like beans, lentils, and nuts are not only lower in fat and sodium, but they're higher in dietary fiber.

What's more, the more meat and processed cheeses you eat, the more the body must ingest the hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals that go along with them.


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