Balanced is excited to bring to you our Nutrition Mythbusters series in which we debunk eight major myths about the links between diet and health! We believe that accurate, evidence-based nutrition information should be accessible to everyone. That’s why we created this educational series dispelling some of the most common and persistent misconceptions regarding healthy, balanced eating and diet-related disease. You can find the video episode of today's blog on our YouTube channel.
By now, you’ve probably seen the health risks of saturated fats and cholesterol openly challenged in popular media. Who could forget that infamous Time magazine cover featuring an artfully photographed shaving of butter positioned beneath a headline encouraging readers to eat more of the fatty spread?
Rightfully, many public health and nutrition experts were frustrated by the misrepresentation of the science and made vociferous protests against the irresponsible article. But Time was just one of many “reputable” publications to propagate the false notion that saturated fats, like those in butter, are neutral or even beneficial to our health. With each additional article, book, and news segment taking the side of fat and cholesterol, the general public became more confused and lost more trust in the evidence-based messaging of public health experts.
For decades, research has clearly and consistently proven that consuming more saturated fats, found mostly in animal-source foods and tropical oils, leads to a significant rise in blood cholesterol levels and in the risk for cardiovascular disease—our number one killer.
It is true, however, that studies pointing to the supposedly “neutral” health effects of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol do exist. The problem isn’t the lack of studies to support the pro-butter camp’s conclusions—it’s the fact that those studies are poorly designed (often intentionally so) and rely upon low-quality data. To make matters worse, reporters then misinterpret and sensationalize these studies’ findings to stir up controversy, sell more copies of their publications, and get more clicks.
The reality is this: if you eat more saturated fat, especially from animal products and tropical oils, your blood cholesterol levels will go up, as will your risk for virtually all of our deadliest chronic illnesses.
Saturated fats (and trans fat) cause measurable, observable damage to the lining of our blood vessels. They contribute to systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity. Moreover, biochemical pathways involving saturated and trans fats implicate both in the progression of chronic inflammatory diseases, including autoimmunity, allergies, cancers, hypertension, atherosclerosis, enlarged heart, and neurodegenerative diseases. Higher saturated fat diets also produce unhealthful changes to the gut microflora make-up, which are associated with elevated endotoxin levels, fat mass, weight gain, liver fat content, insulin resistance, and risk of diabetes.
And let’s not forget about dietary cholesterol, found only in animal-source foods. The oxidation of dietary cholesterol, through cooking or metabolic processes once ingested, poses significant potential health risks. Cholesterol oxidation products (COPs) are likely involved in both initiation and progression of chronic diseases, including atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative disease, kidney failure, and diabetes. Moreover, cholesterol intake, as an indicator of animal product consumption generally, has also been associated with greater risk of numerous cancers, including stomach, pancreas, colon, rectum, kidney, bladder, breast, and lung cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
So, is all fat bad? No, and in small amounts, saturated fat isn’t harmful, either. Poly- and monounsaturated fats are the healthiest options, and they’re best derived from whole plant sources. Think walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and avocados. Canola oil and extra virgin olive oil are healthier options too, and generally, plant oils are healthiest when added to a prepared dish at the end of the cooking process to prevent fat oxidation through heat. Avoid trans fats, including hydrogenated oils, to the greatest extent possible, and when choosing animal-source foods, opt for low-fat, unsweetened options where possible and limit your intake of high-fat, high-cholesterol foods like cheese, eggs, and fatty meats.
In summary, saturated fat and cholesterol may be “in vogue” in the culinary world, but the praise they have enjoyed lately is unsubstantiated by the best nutrition research, and their harms continue to devastate our public health.