The Saturated Fat Conspiracy

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We have seen articles and memes pop up in our Facebook news feed recently suggesting that saturated fat does not contribute to cardiovascular disease.  Some posts go so far as to accuse those responsible for our country’s dietary guidelines, which suggest limiting saturated fat to 7-10% of total calories, of corruption.

Guidelines do change over time in response to new research, which is why the dietary guidelines are updated every five years.  All of these social media posts got me wondering though, are we really behind the times?  Is there a whole bunch of data out there absolving saturated fat from its purported role in cardiovascular disease development and we in health care just don’t know it?  Are the people responsible for creating and updating our dietary guidelines actually corrupt and purposely ignoring data?

To answer these questions, I decided to take a look around the world to see what other countries have to say about saturated fat.

First going north to Canada, I learned that the Dietitians of Canada say, “Saturated fat should be limited to no more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake.”

Hopping across the pond, I read that the British Nutrition Foundation advises, “Eat less saturated fat to keep your blood cholesterol down.”

You may have heard that Denmark instituted a tax on foods high in saturated fat and that this tax has since been repealed, but the repeal had nothing to do with a change in nutrition or physiology understanding, but rather because the tax by and large did not change eating habits.

My next stop was South Africa where the National Department of Health says, “You can prevent heart disease by living a healthy lifestyle: Eat a healthy diet.  Be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.  Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fibre can help prevent high blood cholesterol.” 

Moving laterally to a country where lamb, which is quite high in saturated fat, is so pervasive in the food supply that even Burger King serves lamb burgers, the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation writes, “Saturated fat increases total cholesterol by increasing the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, so it should be eaten in the smallest amounts.  We should aim to reduce saturated fats in the foods we eat, and where fat is used, choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.”

Along with their dietary guidelines, Japan offers an excellent series of journal articles explaining the rationale for said guidelines.  In this paper, the authors acknowledge some of the flaws in saturated fat research, but ultimately offer similar advice to other countries, “In summary, saturated fat intake has been associated with increased incidence of myocardial infarction, obesity, and diabetes mellitus in a dose-dependent manner.  Thus, although it is not clear that increased intake of saturated fat is a cause of these diseases due to a lack of large scale intervention study, research suggests that a diet high in saturated fat may promote these diseases.”  In fact, the Japanese National Institute of Health and Nutrition’s guidelines of 4.5-7% of total calories from saturated fat for males and females age 18 and older is even stricter than what our own dietary guidelines suggest here in the United States.

So, it seems that if we are behind the times, unaware of critical data, or corrupt, then so is everybody else.

It could very well come to pass that in time we will refine our understanding of saturated fat’s role in cardiovascular disease development, and we can bet that future dietary guidelines will evolve in response.  In the meantime, when you see social media posts calling attention to a particular study or factoid, remember that there is going to be variation from study to study, which is why the research community, those responsible for creating our dietary guidelines, and practitioners, do not get too worked up about any one particular study.  The overall body of research is what matters.  For the time being, the world’s dietary guidelines are what they are regarding saturated fat because the overall body of research, while incomplete and imperfect, points in one particular direction.

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