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Saturated Fat Not The Enemy? Get The Whole Story First

Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body's insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body's insulin resistance, which can cause type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Start your day with bacon and lose 10 pounds?

That’s what a self-styled dietary expert writing in The Wall Street Journal says happened to her. And, she suggests, it could happen to you too. Just get over your obsession, and your doc’s obsession, with avoiding saturated fat. The kind in bacon, burgers, butter and several other ingredients that do not start with the letter B. Eat the fat and cut the carbs. Totally.


These and similar conclusions have been trumpeted recently in the national media, from NPR to Fox News to The New York Times, and often with more than a hint of triumph attached. They are based on a much-criticized report, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, of a mega-analysis that concludes: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

The news on saturated fat can be misleading

This is not exactly saying saturated fat is good for you, but you wouldn’t guess that from what’s being pronounced. Authors of the analysis itself are a bit more cautious: Saturated fat is neither beneficial nor is it harmful, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of several co-authors of the study. It all depends on what it replaces. “Compared to polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils, saturated fat is clearly more harmful to the heart,” Mozaffarian told an interviewer.

So hang on a minute — let’s see what this is all about. First of all, the reported conclusion is hardly news. Already in 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported, another meta-analysis questioned the association of saturated fat with heart disease risk. “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (congestive heart disease) or (cardiovascular disease),” concluded the report. “More data are needed to elucidate whether (cardiovascular disease) risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.”

So why is it news now? I can’t answer that question.

But the most recent analysis has a number of problems, and not just of interpretation. Dr. David Katz of Yale’s Prevention Research Center called The Wall Street Journal article “reheated leftover nonsense,” and pointed out that nowhere in the Annals report does it say that saturated fat is harmless or beneficial. In any case, he asks rhetorically, “Is lack of harm really the new standard in healthful eating? … I thought we might actually be interested in food that was genuinely good for us.”

Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based registered dietician, concurs and points out further that there is a strong and to date irrefutable relationship between consumption of lots of red meat and the risk of colon cancer. And if you still want to switch to a diet of beef ‘n’ bacon, Schwartz says, be aware of the ways different fats affect insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance, which increases with age, weight gain and lack of exercise, leads almost inevitably to Type 2 diabetes. Saturated fat from meat and dairy products, according to a recent Spanish study, decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning it promotes insulin resistance; oleic acid, on the other hand, the predominant fat in olive oil, has the opposite effect.

These findings, Schwartz notes, are another victory for the Mediterranean diet, which treats meat as a minor part of total calories, often simply as a garnish to a dish of beans, pasta, vegetables or all three mixed together with some extra virgin olive oil. (You can follow more of this discussion on Schwartz’s website, Enlightened Eater.)

Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, I should add that the man who first identified the good health outcomes of a traditional Mediterranean diet, the late Dr. Ancel Keys, has become a whipping boy for the anti-carb crusaders who accuse him of promoting a devastating anti-fat campaign that has led us to our present predicament. After decades of anti-fat messages, the argument goes, Americans have become fatter and unhealthier than ever and it’s all the fault of Keys, who promoted low-fat diets as a cure for heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet centers on eating a varied diet of vegetables, fruits, seafood, legumes and healthy fats. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The Mediterranean diet centers on eating vegetables, fruits, seafood, legumes and healthy fats. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Nothing could be further from the truth. Keys was well aware that the Mediterranean populations his research team investigated on the island of Crete and in southern Italy were hardly members of the low-fat brigade. Indeed, the Cretan population at the time got a whopping 45 percent of its calories from fat. But it was a very particular fat, mostly olive oil and mostly extra virgin.

So why, then, the increase in obesity, diabetes and concomitant problems in recent decades? Because it seems to be related to diets of increased carbohydrates and decreased fats, should we simply switch categories, increasing fats and decreasing carbs? Not so fast. First of all, well-grounded research shows that although the percentage of calories from fat has decreased in the average American diet, the actual quantity of fat consumed has remained the same. You don’t need a graduate degree in statistics to understand why: The total amount of calories consumed has gone way, way up.

Stephan Guyenet of Whole Health Source, a well-regarded website, used statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service to show that U.S. average dietary consumption increased between 1960 and 2009 by 363 calories per day. That alone is enough to account for the present predicament. Keys can rest comfortably in his grave, knowing his recommendations to follow a Mediterranean-style diet are still completely valid and have nothing to do with the low-fat mantra.

And what does that mean? The Mediterranean diet is not one single element but rather a holistic pattern that includes a variety of ingredients — vegetables, fruits, legumes, seafood, small quantities of meat and dairy products, a primary fat in olive oil — and from this we should be eating a wide variety. Maybe put butter on your toast one morning and extra virgin olive oil (my own preferred condiment — think bruschetta) the next. Or have a burger for dinner one night, a piece of fish the next and a big bowl of steamed greens with beans on a third.

In the end, however, the solution is simple: Get into the kitchen and cook!

Main photo: Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body’s insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Rory Rosszell 5·20·14

    What interests me are more discussions of the claim that some saturated fats (e.g., coconut) are much healthier that others. With potential huge implications, why does this get left out of so many discussions on saturated fats?

  • Cynthia Nicholson 5·20·14

    Nancy, thank you for trying to make sense of this ongoing argument about saturated fats. You probably don’t remember me, but I worked at Cooking Light magazine when your book…”Between 2 Seas” came out. Your intelligent, sane take on these issues always goes back to the sensibility of the Mediterranean diet.

  • Julia della Croce 5·20·14

    As you know, Nancy, extra-virgin olive oil is not a mere cooking oil, it is, in essence, a highly nutritious fruit juice. We should cook with it and use it as a condiment for its flavor and health attributes. But it is an oil with a dense calorie value. People concerned with weight gain need to watch all oil intake, including olive oil consumption. I have learned from my Ayurvedic doctor that the key to heart health, overall good health and weight control is eating at least 7 cups (uncooked volume) of greens every day in addition to other vegetables and two fruits; moderate amounts of seeds and nuts for snacks twice a day. Drizzle the olive oil judiciously.