Tuesday 10 April 2012

Saturated fat – will I get fat and die?

Just thought I’d start you off with a random advert from back in the good ol’ days. Now onto the post (it’s related, I promise): 

Other than giving up bread, I have noticed what makes people squirm is the idea of consuming more fat. “But I’ll get heart disease!” they say, or “Fat will make me fat!” To this I respond with a swift “No” and “no”. But I understand the fear. After all, it has been jammed into us for at least the last 30 years that we should cut down on our intake of fat, especially the “devil fat” (saturated), and increase our intake of “healthy whole-grains”. This, we were told, would be our solution to the heart disease and obesity epidemic that was sweeping the world. Turns out things didn’t go quite to plan! Not only are we fatter, but we also have higher rates of heart disease (not to mention diabetes, atherosclerosis, and autoimmune conditions, to name a few). But WHY? Are people just inherently lazy and not following the government guidelines? Should we be exercising more and eating less? While there are a number of factors that play a role in these conditions, I would like to entertain the idea that perhaps we got it wrong. Perhaps fat isn’t the foe and is, in fact, our friend. So here goes….

Often I am frustrated by the nutritional guidelines mentioned above. I believe these guidelines to be misguiding because:

a) I know many people (myself included) who have experienced fantastic results in doing the exact opposite of these suggestions, without dying, and 
b) I have learnt from some fantastic researchers around the world, such as Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Chris Masterjohn, Mark Sisson and Denise Minger, reasons why we should ignore these guidelines and go with a more traditional approach

What I haven’t done is look at the scientific evidence myself, and I mean really decipher the data presented in the studies that are used to provide evidence for “the guidelines”. Until this weekend. Yep, that’s right folks, my Easter weekend was awesome! My latest assignment involves researching The French Paradox – why French people have a high intake of saturated fat yet have one of the lowest rates of heart disease. To cut a long story short, heart disease is not caused by saturated fat intake, and prevention of heart disease involves many, many factors. To name a few:
  • Drink more red wine – tick! (Although apparently the French have higher rates of liver disease. Hmmm)
  • Eat lots of fresh vegies and fruit and cook them slowly and gently to preserve the anti-oxidants
  • Eat foods rich in folate and B12 (e.g. pate from pastured-animals)  
  • Avoid vegetable oils such as soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, safflower
  • Enjoy rich, full-fat foods from whole, natural sources
  • Eat mindfully!! 
But I digress. Back to the fat issue. 

What I found was insufficient evidence to support the recommendation of “decrease your intake of fat”. In fact, one document by the NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) that goes through the evidence for the guidelines actually warns against the dangers of an extremely low fat diet (1)! Shame this info isn’t expressed in the media! I don’t know about you, but the message I hear is “if you cut out all fat from your diet, you will be one healthy chicken (or cucumber??!)”


And if you can’t be arsed reading, here is a video which gets the basic idea across:

There are two keys studies which are often cited as “evidence” for minimising your intake of saturated fat:

1) The Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys (2) 
Keys is often vilified as the man behind all this saturated fat hoo-haa. Why? Because he “studied” 11,000 people from 7 different countries and found that the more saturated fat one consumed, the greater their risk of heart disease. And he went on to present a little graph that looks something like this one on the left:

*Thanks to the fabulous Chris Masterjohn from The Daily Lipid for this beauty!

Convincing, right? Sure – until you realise what is wrong with the data. First, and probably the most widely acknowledged problem, is that Keys actually studied 22 countries and when all the data are plotted in a similar fashion, the pretty graph looks like the one we see on the right (above). France, with all their fatty goodness, occupies position 8 – quite high on the fat intake but one of the lowest rates of death from heart disease! Tsk tsk Mr Keys!

Aside from this, the diet information obtained to plot his graph was collected via weighed food records (where you weigh everything you eat over several days). While these are the best way to obtain information on dietary intake, they still have many inherent limitations. Keys himself acknowledges that there are “extreme limitations of dietary estimates for individuals”. Of greater concern, however, is perhaps the fact that “the estimates of the average diets of each cohort were based on 80-150 seven-day dietary surveys”. That works out at between 1,200 - 2,250 individuals for whom we have data for. And this was supposed to be representative of THE WHOLE WORLD!! What the….??? And finally, what we all need to remember, and what Keys kindly states towards the end of his paper is that “relationships shown here….are not claimed to be necessarily causal”, meaning we cannot say that fat causes heart disease just by showing an association between the two! Chris Kresser actually provided a nice analogy on correlations which goes something like this (para-phrasing):

‘In the past few years, the popularity of Facebook has increased, while the debt crisis in Greece has worsened. Does that mean the popularity of Facebook caused the Greek financial crises? Or vice versa?’ I rest my case.

2) The Nurse’s Health Study, by Hu et al (3)
This one aimed to show the relationship between different types of saturated fats (they come in different lengths) and heart disease. What did they find? Nothing significant!! Here is their summary table:

Now this probably means nothing to you. But trust me, in terms if saturated fat, after adjustment for confounding variables (other factors that can influence risk of heart disease), there is no significant relationship with risk of heart disease.

 And if you don’t trust me, take a look at the numbers in parentheses. These are upper and lower limits of statistical analysis. If the number 1 is within this range, then the results are not significant. For example 1.19 (0.98, 1.46) is not a significant result as the value 1.00 lies between 0.98 and 1.46. Get it? Don’t really care? OK, let’s move on then. Now what do you think the authors’ conclusion, following on from these insignificant results, was……

“Our results support recommendations to substitute poultry and fish and low-fat dairy products for red meat and high-fat dairy products to reduce the risk of CHD”

FAAAAARRRKKK!!! So you see – this is the kind of dodgy science that our recommendations are based on!! Frustrating right?

OK, enough science-talk, let’s get back to the goodness of fat! Here are just some of the important roles fat plays in the body:
  • They keep our cell membranes in-tact, allowing things in that are supposed to be there but keeping out those that are not, which is extremely important for proper cell functioning
  • They are important for healthy bones – for calcium to be effectively utilised  in bones, at least 50% of dietary fats should be saturated
  • They protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins
  • They are needed to allow us to properly utilise the essential fatty acids, such as those obtained from oily fish and grass-fed meat
  • They have anti-microbial properties and protect us from bad bacteria in the gut
  • They enhance our immune system
  • They are required in order to absorb key vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, D, E and K, which our diets these days are often lacking in (any guesses why?!)
Alright, so we have established that fat is good, right? But which ones are the good fats and the bad fats? This definitely needs to be discussed, as the bad can be very bad. Here are the fats you should avoid at all cost:
  • trans fats. This is science-code for “mutated fat”. These can be naturally occurring, as in red meat, but it is the processed ones you need to be wary of. They are found in margarine, biscuits, cakes, potato chips…..you get the gist. If you see “partially hydrogenated” anywhere – throw it as far away as possible.
  • Vegetable oils such as soybean, sunflower, corn, canola, safflower. These are all extracted at high heat and pressure, which leaves them damaged and damaging. They should never be used, and especially never heated. 
And then the good fats:
  • Tropical oils, such as red palm oil, coconut oil, coconut milk: Coconut oil is especially rich in lauric acid, which is the fat found in abundance in breast milk. Anyone going to argue that breast milk isn’t the bee’s knees? Nope, didn’t think so. This little baby is rich in anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties, just to name a few benefits. This is my staple fat and I probably consume up to 2tbspn of it per day! Because it is quite saturated, it is safe to use at high temperatures, so use it in your cooking to give your meat a nice “I feel like I’m in Thailand” flavour. 
  • Butter. Yep. Your Grandma knew it, and so did her Grandma, and her Grandma. Unfortunately we have pushed this traditional wisdom aside and instead opted for the “I’m very similar to plastic” margarine. Butter, like coconut oil, has many anti-microbial, anti-tumour, and immune-system supporting properties. It is also rich in conjugated linoleic acid which has been shown to prevent weight gain and encourage muscle growth. Always opt for organic brands from New Zealand, as their cows are all pasture-raised, which is especially important for ensuring high levels of vitamin A, D, E and K in the final product (go Kiwi’s!!). Butter is also OK to cook with.
  • Animal fat, such as beef tallow, lard, chicken fat: if from organic and humanely-raised sources, these fats are perfect for cooking with at high temperatures. Cue more random adverts for lard:
Brilliant. Just Brilliant. Now where was I?? Oh - the good fats - they just keep on coming:

  • Olive oil: rich in anti-oxidants and extremely healthy to use on salads. This one is best kept for cold, low heat use, as it is more fragile and susceptible to damage than the others. Always buy cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles and keep in a cool place (not the fridge – I made this mistake once). 
  • Flaxseed oil: rich in omega-3 fatty acids, important for reducing inflammation in the body. Keep this one in the fridge in a dark glass bottle, use sparingly on salads, and NEVER heat. 
  • Natural occurring fats, such as avocado, nuts (use sparingly), whole unprocessed milk and cream, eggs
So this is all good and well, but what would a typical day of eating look like, incorporating these fats. Well, I can only speak for myself, as there are a myriad of ways you could work these into your diet, but this is what average day looks like (with some more bullet points, if I may):

  • Before breakfast: mug of warm beef broth – contains beef tallow (post on benefits of broth to come)
  • Breakfast: Berries and Coconut Extraordinaire (coconut milk and sometimes coconut oil)
  • Lunch: If I’m at home I will have 2 poached eggs, cabbage and tomato sautéed in coconut oil and balsamic vinegar, and half an avocado (plus bacon if I’m feeling festive). If I am out and about, I will pack a salad (anything goes), and top it with some tinned wild-caught salmon, a drizzle of olive oil, and half an avocado. 
  • Snack (if needed): mug of beef broth or a dandelion tea made with coconut milk
  • Dinner: Chicken curry made with yellow curry powder (no sugar), chicken thighs, onion, garlic and coconut cream; served with steamed vegetables that may be topped with butter and/or ghee.
You will notice that I only have three meals. I am able to do this quite comfortably without getting “hangry” (hungry + angry) due to the fat in my meals being quite satiating, as opposed to having meals high in carbohydrates, which will cause blood sugar spikes and crashes and the need to eat every 2-3hrs. On that note, if you do increase your fat intake, you will need to simultaneously reduce your carbohydrate intake in order to avoid potential complications. 

Last time I checked, my diet consisted of 70% fat! And just so you can see that my body is not 70% fat (I often float around the 13-15% body fat mark), here is a gratuitous shot of my butt (I’m the one on the right):

Hopefully I have convinced you that no, you will not get fat and die from eating fat. In fact, just the opposite – eating the right fats will make you healthier and hotter! So go forth and get your fat on!

*If you are interested in reading more on the benefits of fat and how to incorporate it into your diet, I can strongly recommend purchasing Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (4)


1) National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and New Zealand Ministry of Health. 2006; Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand including Recommended Dietary Intakes, Canberra, Australia 
2) Keys, A. et al; 1986; The Diet and 15-year death rate in the seven countries study, in American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 124, No.6, pp.903-915
3) Hu, F.B et al; 1999; Dietary saturated fats and their food sources in relation to the risk of coronary heart disease in women, in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 70, pp. 1001-8
4) Fallon, S. and Enig, M.G; 2001; Nourishing Traditions, New Trends Publishing, Washington, DC


  1. Great post! Have you seen this:

    1. Thanks! I have! Good to see that some are speaking out with the truth!