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Does Saturated Fat Cause Heart Disease?

To put it as simply as possible: no. There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE linking dietary intake of saturated fats with incidence of heart disease.

I know! This is so counter-intuitive, so contrary to everything we’ve been told. But a recent study published in the Archives on Internal Medicine undertook a systematic review of every published medical study linking a wide variety of nutritional factors to heart disease.

And guess what they found?


You guessed it! There was no evidence — none — linking dietary intake of saturated fats with heart disease.

According to Dr. Briffa’s reporting on the study, the researchers applied the Bradford Hill Guidelines for judging weather or not a strong case for a cause/effect relationship existed between the nutritional factors studied and incidence of coronary heart disease.

If a nutritional factor met 4 or more criteria, they reported “strong” evidence supporting the link. Meeting 2 or fewer criteria made for a “weak” link.

And where did dietary intake of saturated fat score?

Zero.

That’s right. It wasn’t even on their list!

Here’s Dr. Briffa’s summary and conclusion:

In other words, according to this review, there are no appropriately conducted randomised controlled trials to support the notion that cutting back on saturated fat is good for the prevention of heart disease. Add that finding to the one which shows no link between saturated fat and heart disease from cohort studies and where does that leave us? Well, the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that there really is no good evidence to support the widespread recommendation to reduce saturated fat intake for the sake of heart health.

Taken as a whole, I think the findings of this systematic review can be summarised as follows: a low fat, high carb diet is bad for the heart. And, again, a close inspection of the science gives us no reason at all to cut back on saturated fat.

For his more detailed analysis, go here.

So, when your friends or family chide you for your zealous use of coconut oil (92% saturated fat), butter from grass-fed cows (66% saturated fat), tallow from grass-fed cows (43% saturated fat), lard from foraged hogs (39% saturated fat), and other healthy fats, you don’t have to debate them — each wielding your own scientific sword. Instead, you can simply say “The evidence against saturated fats is simply not there.”

And you’ll be right!

(photo by lab2112)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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35 Responses to Does Saturated Fat Cause Heart Disease?
  1. Leopold
    April 21, 2009 | 4:53 pm

    Ha ha! I’ve believed this about saturated fats for a while, but it’s great to see this idea starting to become more mainstream. (Or at least mainstream enough that someone would publish the results of this survey of all these medical studies.)

    I wish everyone would watch that movie Fat Head.

    It’s pretty funny, and it does a decent job turning the lipid hypothesis on its head.

    -leo

  2. KristenM
    April 21, 2009 | 5:07 pm

    Leopold — I’ve actually got Fat Head at the top of my Netflix queue right now. I’ve watched segments from it, read about it, and even checked up on the producer’s blog from time to time. But I still haven’t seen the movie.

    • The Top Class Guy
      January 27, 2012 | 5:09 pm

      What date was this published?

  3. Bryan - oz4caster
    April 21, 2009 | 6:03 pm

    Yes, many in the know have been saying this for years, including Mary Enig and Sally Fallon with WAPF. Where is the news media on this????? This should have made banner headlines! SATURATED FAT NOT LINKED TO HEART DISEASE

    Oh well …. most people will never know. They will keep hearing the same old “eat a low fat diet and avoid saturated fat” mantra that conventional medicine and dietitians spout. I just heard it on the radio this morning! And millions will keep getting fat and get diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Some myths are so difficult to overcome. I guess we have to take one step at a time and this study is another good step.

    Bryan – oz4caster

    • bob
      March 28, 2013 | 9:01 pm

      It’s not just that the low-fat diet concept is a popular myth, rather, it’s probably more accurate to call it what it is….a propoganda campaign organized by agribusiness/soy/vegetable oil lobbiest’s

  4. KristenM
    April 21, 2009 | 6:09 pm

    Bryan — It probably doesn’t help that even the AUTHORS of the study didn’t bother to mention this in their summary! Instead they spoke about all the things linked to increased risk, as well as a few of the dietary habits linked to decreased risk.

    But, yes, it should be headline news, and it isn’t.

  5. Walter Jeffries
    April 21, 2009 | 7:08 pm

    Something that people need to keep in mind is that different people have evolved differently. Some people have high tolerances for salt, for other’s it leads to high blood pressure and health problems. Same for fats and many other things. This is why I’m so leery of government mandated salt levels, bans on certain foods, etc.

  6. JC
    April 21, 2009 | 8:48 pm

    Every time I call my insurance company (which, unfortunately, is often) they have this person speaking about the benefits of a low-fat diet and how saturated fats can increase the chances of developing heart disease. It makes me grind my teeth every time.

    Of course this won’t make the big news. That is why it’s up to us to spread the word.

    JC

  7. KristenM
    April 21, 2009 | 8:54 pm

    Walter — That’s a very valid point, and one I’m quick to stress in my nutrition & wellness coaching. I think understanding that each person has their own unique genetic heritage is one of the keys to unlocking each person’s individual wellness potential. It’s also why one-size-fits-all diets don’t work for everyone.

    That said, saturated fats STILL aren’t bad — for anyone. While it may be true that some people are more inclined to do better on a high fat diet, I don’t think anyone’s going to do better on a high polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) diet. In other words, even if your ideal intake of dietary fats is lower than an Inuit’s (80% of their calories come from animal fat!), you still wouldn’t want what fat you *do* eat to be from industrialized sources (high in PUFAs and Omega-6s). And unfortunately, that’s just what a so-called “heart healthy” diet recommends while admonishing you to avoid saturated fats at all costs.

    KristenM

  8. Berni
    April 21, 2009 | 9:31 pm

    Thanks for such a great post. I’ve been an avid reader of all things Weston A Price for a while now and recently had my beliefs about saturated fat challenged when my Dr showed concern about my high side of normal cholesterol readings. I have my theories as to why this is happening to me and I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with saturated fat. None the less my beautiful golden butter has gone untouched for the last few weeks, but not any longer, thanks for the info and reinforcement :)

    Berni

  9. Kyle
    April 21, 2009 | 11:45 pm

    Great article, perfect actually, thanks!

    I’m not sure I get exactly the the picture has to do with it though ;)

    By the way, does olive oil have a good ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s, do you know?

  10. Julie
    April 22, 2009 | 10:24 am

    I have to wonder if the government paid for healthcare (either universal healthcare or single-payer system) if we’d see more accuracy in the reporting of study results–even when they don’t agree with the lasted food marketing efforts (i.e. low fat, anti-saturated fat, feed lot beef, etc.)? Alas, I doubt the special interest groups would ever have that little influence. The whole thing is tragic.

    Julie

  11. KristenM
    April 22, 2009 | 10:34 am

    Berni — There are a lot of things that can cause your cholesterol to be out of balance. Basically, you’ll want to avoid anything that causes inflammation since cholesterol in the blood is our body’s healing response to inflammation of the arteries. Most people find that simply by switching to better fats, they’re able to eliminate the inflammation and bring their lipid levels into better balance. (Of course, by better fats I mean ELIMINATING all yellow oils and using coconut oil and animal fats from grass-fed/wild/foraged animals instead.)

    Kyle — I was connecting heart disease with heart attacks, strokes, and trips to the emergency room in my mind.

    Julie — I don’t think we would. Just my opinion, though.

  12. Andrea
    April 22, 2009 | 1:51 pm

    Julie–
    I doubt that…think about it…the government created the food pyramid, and they even recently “improved” it and it isn’t any better. Government-run healthcare would just be more of the same–emphasis on treatments, but little on nutritional prevention. Especially when the government guidelines on nutrition probably create more disease!

    Anyways, the government has absolutely nothing to do with the reporting of studies. However, the government, through the NIH or other government agencies, funds most of the academic research already. The NIH decides what type of research they want to fund (for example, cancer research and alzheimer research are popular) and then scientists must write proposals, which are reviewed by other scientists in the field. The panel of scientists decides which studies get funded, which is of course based on how much money is available. Right now, funding is at about 8%–that means 8% of all proposals submitted are funded. If a study is funded at least in part by the NIH, the resulting peer-reviewed paper must be deposited on PubMed so the general public can access it.

  13. Andrea
    April 22, 2009 | 2:23 pm

    KristenM–
    I read the article and in their discussion, the authors actually do directly state that there is weak evidence to support the idea that saturated fats, meat, eggs, and milk are associated with heart disease. They also say that few studies have shown that lowering saturated fat intake is correlated with a reduced risk in heart disease. They even go on to talk about how the idea that fats are bad came about and how they’re really isn’t any good evidence to support it.

    Great blog–I stop by several times a week and check it out. I really like that you provide links so we can look into things on our own.

    Andrea

  14. KristenM
    April 22, 2009 | 2:27 pm

    Andrea — Really? I must have read a different summary than the one the authors themselves wrote! Do you have a link to the original?

  15. Raine Saunders
    April 22, 2009 | 4:44 pm

    I always have to return to the argument I consistently use, which is, the industrially-produced meats and dairy products most people are consuming is really the culprit in causing heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and other related health ailments (of course there are other factors such as sedentary lifestyles, stress, etc). Because this represents the bulk of what people consume, and these health issues are rampant in our society, of course this makes sense. Healthy meats and dairy are low in calories and carbohydrates, naturally lean, high in protein and Omega 3s and CLAs – which is the perfect equation for good health and proper weight maintenance.

    This weekend at the YMCA Healthy Kids Campaign where I had a booth, a woman pointed out to me that not everyone can afford to eat this way. My reply was that if you make health your number one priority, along with essential bills you have to pay regularly like your mortgage and car payments, you will find a way to afford the good quality food that will keep you out of the hospital or doctor’s office in the first place. I also pointed out that in most communities of any reasonable size (and even many smaller ones), local meats and dairy products are available for less money and then you are supporting your local economy – what better way to contribute to your environment, your health, and your own backyard! I am still surprised how disconnected people are from these concepts and don’t seem to get it…but I just keep on keeping on with education. Someday the wall will come down!

    Raine Saunders

  16. Cathy Payne
    June 19, 2009 | 5:30 am

    Very well stated, Raine! We choose to vote with our dollars and set a high priority on healthy, clean, sustainable food. How can we afford to eat “cheaply” when it costs our health, our environment, and our farm workers?

    Cathy Payne

  17. Sean
    July 8, 2009 | 1:08 am

    Be wary of information obtained from the Weston A Price Foundation. They are marvelous at promoting whole, natural foods and organic , sustainable agriculture but they fall incredibly short when it comes to accepting information from a wide variety of sources. They have taken up arms against soyfoods and all forms of vegetarianism based solely upon highly contested opinions. I am a young vegan and I am incredibly health conscious, but I live with my parents who subscribe to the Wise Traditions magazine (a publication put out by WAPF), I am VERY tired of being harassed for my beliefs and diet. I have read several of the magazines and their cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, and I’m sorry but the science isn’t there. I don’t think saturated fats are unhealthy, I think they are very nourishing and filling, but I get them from plants and that’s that. I also get my protein from the occasional meal with tofu in it (GASP!)! Please take their OPINIONS (that’s what they are) with a grain of salt. My parents now consume raw, whole milk kefir daily, and consider my whole grain banana bread UNHEALTHY! My stepmother has also told my brother I’m going to die first……

    Eat Natural. Eat Plants. Eat Compassionately.

  18. Nourished / Satisfied
    July 30, 2009 | 11:03 pm

    Sean – It is not so much that ‘vegetarianism’ should be immediately labeled as unhealthy, as most ‘modern’ omnivores are unhealthy as well, obviously. The matter is whether you are getting each nutrient your body needs. Where are you getting true vitamin A from if you are a vegan? It is only available from animal sources (and please do not say carrots, because your body does NOT convert all of this to true vitamin A), Vitamin D? (are you getting that from FORTIFIED soy milk; if anything is fortified then you know its not a very nourishing food), adequate calcium (yes you can get small amounts here and there from different plant sources, but you’d have to eat a huge variety, and a lot of each species to even get some), Vitamin K2 (while you can get a fair amount from properly fermented natto, can I guess you do not eat this ever or regularly?), your only major source of saturated fat from the plant kindgom would be could coconut oil (its great that your parents follow the guidelines of the Weston A Price Foundation, as you have access to this oil I guess?), Omega 3 polyunsaturates (DHA and EPA) are only available from animal sources (you can only get ALA from some plant sources (significant sources being flax seed oil, chia seed oil, etc.) but these are not best consumed in huge quantities because they are easily oxidated, and the body is not very efficient in coverting ALA to DHA or EPA, also your saturated fat intake would more than likely be very low if you are vegan, adn therefore you might not get the benefits of the relationship between saturated fats and omega fats, as well as the relationship between saturated fats and calcium being implemented into the bones.

    I will not go into protein, because the majority of your protein requirements can be met from a carefully monitered and varied diet of most any kind.

    It is a fine line to walk when you are talking about food and health together, even seperate, as so many people have been told so many different things. Its a huge confusing topic, often misunderstood. I am sure your banana bread is not all that ‘unhealthy’. There could be ways you could make it more digestible so that you can utilize everything in it, but I am also sure that you make a fairly healthy version anyways.
    .-= Nourished / Satisfied

  19. Nourished / Satisfied
    July 30, 2009 | 11:19 pm

    Carotenoids which include the very prevalent beta carotene are poorly converted by the body. For example, some studies indicate that the body requires as much as twenty-one times the amount of carotenoids to create the same amount of vitamin A is one part retinol. To add insult to injury many people, especially those suffering from thyroid disorders and small children, are even poorer converters. A 2001 study found that the conversion rate of carotenoids to true vitamin A is so poor as to render it nutritionally insignificant.

    Vitamin D2 is not a truly natural form of the vitamin D. Vitamin D2 does not occur in any detectable quantities in humans; instead, it

  20. Werner Intense Weight loss
    November 23, 2009 | 7:51 am

    PERFECT article!
    thank you so much i will be back much more to feed the better side of me.

  21. Mason
    December 4, 2009 | 4:45 pm

    @Sean, from many months ago:

    I sympathize with the issue of the “cult-like fervor” of WAPF converts. For people who were raised on the myths of “margarine=good, butter=bad; chicken breast=good, steak=bad” — as I was — having that dogma turned on its head tends to lead to a sense of having found the Rosetta stone of health; however, experience has proved to me that a healthy diet is only *one* factor is overall health. And unfortunately, changing one’s diet in adulthood is never going to significantly undo the damage incurred from a childhood of “fake food”. Much to my dismay.

    The WAPF Foundation is perhaps over-critical of vegan diets. I have met, online and in real life, vegans of many years who appeared to be in good health…

    The caveat is, *multi-generational* veganism is unsustainable. Vegan mothers will have less robust children (and indeed many pregnant vegetarians are forced by bodily cravings to modify their diets), and if god forbid the children are raised without access to dietary cholesterol and vitamin-rich fats, they will face serious fertility problems as adults. If somehow they manage to have children, the fertility and health problems will be even greater in the next generation.

    Do I know this for certain? No — but there is strong circumstantial evidence from the Pottenger studies and other anecdotal data about children raised on skim milk vs. whole, vegetarian societies vs. omnivore societies (e.g. “among immigrants in London from the Indian subcontinent, vegetarian Hindu Asians were found to have an 8.5 fold increased risk of tuberculosis, compared to Muslims who ate meat and fish daily.”), and so on. I was also recently reminded (watching a Nova program) that it was the switch to an animal/flesh-intensive diet that allowed our hominid ancestors to develop the height and brain capacity that made us self-aware, technologically adept, etc. (The science behind this change in bodily structure is quite fascinating.) Some of the most ancient hominid sites show large collections of roasted, cracked marrow bones, or grilled shellfish.

    In any case, your commitment to “compassionate eating” is commendable, but if nothing else I’d recommend consuming fresh local seafood and quality butter as a supplement to your diet. Shrimp, mussels, oysters, etc. are barely sentient, they are wild, and very healthy. Dairy is quite compassionate when bought from local farmers. As Michael Pollan noted, nutritional science is in its infancy, and there are many micronutrients that are as yet undiscovered; abstaining from all animal substances in the belief that one can find a good combination of plant food to replace it is, frankly, naive. Particularly if one desires to have children.

    My two cents.

  22. Scott
    December 17, 2009 | 8:45 am

    Too many web sites are promoting coconut oil, palm oil and soy bean oil. All of these oils will eventually harm you. I only use olive and grape seed oil. I do not use saturated oils, butters, margarines, Trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils), any processed soy product, and vegetable oils like cotton seed, corn, and canola. Three years ago I switched to olive and grape seed oil. It has made such a change to my body, it lowered my total cholesterol over 100 points and I do not eat oat meal or take meds. My blood pressure is now 60 over 105 it was 90 over 135. I now have a pulse of 58. I am over 40 years old. My doctor is baffled how I achieved this with out meds. I mostly eat egg whites, chicken, turkey, lean pork, some fish – not too much because of mercury, vegetables, fruits, rice, home made bread, and my favorite chocolate peanut butter muffins only sweetened with apple sauce! I avoid eating out, you cannot control what’s in that food. I do not eat deli meats, hot dogs, and bacon, all have high sodium and nitrates that can cause colon and prostate cancers. I do not eat soy products because they cause hormone issues and inflammation of arteries around the heart. I also do not drink tap water because it contains chlorine and high amounts of iron which can be harmful if you have hemochromotosis – genetic disorder that goes undetected by most doctors in the U.S. that makes the body store too much iron and will eventually kill you by the time your in your 50’s and is usually misdiagnosed as either a heart attach or liver cancer

  23. Courtney
    September 23, 2010 | 7:00 am

    This has been an issue swirling around in my head for the past few years. I am healthy and eat a balanced diet. I am not afraid of saturated fats. Yet, my 13 year old daughter has familial hypercholesterolemia with a lipid protein A disease. Her liver generates too much cholesterol and the extra proteins damage the arteries making the cholesterol stick . Working with her heart doctor, she is encouraged to eat a low-fat, low saturated fat, no hydrogenated fat diet. Problem. She eats too much carbs and sugars and her triglycerides are high. She is still warming up to veggies and only eats them in small amounts. She’s picky about fruits too. She is on a low statin drug and with the modified diet and increasing her exercise, she has been able to lower her total cholesterol to the low 200’s. Her doctor is very pleased, yet I wonder if her diet will have an effect on her in other ways down the road and I have often wondered if I add more healthy whole fats (dairy) to satiate her and keep her from craving so much carbs and sugars if it would hurt her. I guess I’m looking for more educated thoughts on consuming saturated fats for people with a predisposition to heart disease. My daughter’s father died at 35 of a heart attack. Heart disease.

  24. Jay
    October 18, 2010 | 11:11 pm

    Saturated fats by themselves are not the problem. However, they do increase risk of many disease by at least two mechanisms.
    1) Saturated fats cause increase translocation of LPS (part of gram-negative bacteria wall) from intestinal lumina into circulation. This triggers TLR4 sensors on various cells which leads to NFkB activation which triggers pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL1b, TNFa, and IFNg.
    2) Saturated fats causes cells to reduce uptake of glucose thus leaving more in the blood stream.

    Combine above with a high-PUFA, low-fiber, high-carb, high-protein diet and you increase your risk of SyndromeX, diabetes, hypertension, CVD, arthritis, cancer, etc.

  25. Kevin@How To Get Your Ex Back
    December 21, 2010 | 7:31 am

    Thank you so much for this. My gym dietitian is against saturated fat. I told her that I used coconut oil for cooking and she said it’s the worst oil for cooking. I didn’t want to offend her authority on nutrition by arguing about the healthy effects of saturated fats so I just let her have her moment and lied to her that I will stop using it. I should refer her to this article though.

  26. Dennis
    March 18, 2011 | 12:14 pm

    Realizing that I’m posting on a cold thread, I was thinking about Sean’s comment and some of my own experiences as I’ve learned more about food over the past year. My wife and I have done our best to adopt changes like removing sugar and vegetable oils from our diet, eating more dairy and grass-fed/pastured meat. We’ve met some great local farmers as we’ve done so. However, I can definitely say that we’ve offended some of our good friends as well, without meaning to, simply by changing the way we eat, and by talking so much about food. I tend to get excited when I learn things, and I tend to turn into a preacher if I don’t restrain myself, but I’ve met some pretty stiff resistance when it comes to food.

    Thinking about it, though, is this so surprising? Is it really that wrong to feel a near-religious zeal when it comes to what you take into your body? Hasn’t food always been linked to faith, whether it is Friday fish or sacred cows, forbidden pork or untouchable liver? Don’t many religions teach that the body is a temple? The thing that struck me most as I read Weston Price’s work is that the modern, science-driven approach to eating is the real anomaly.

    That being said, I believe that patience and love are the root of any real religious feeling. So, even though food is important–maybe even vitally important–there has to be some room for allowing other people to eat just as they please, even if we’re personally convinced it is going to kill them.

  27. Maria
    March 28, 2011 | 12:21 pm

    You can watch “Fat Head” for free on Hulu. There are a few commercials, but it’s 1 1/2 hours long, so just consider it an opportunity to stretch. :)

    My Mom has been on a low-carb diet for a little over a year. She has lost about 70 lbs and has been building muscle – she’s 67!

    I’m convinced, so I’m trying it, too. I recently switched to butter. I also started putting heavy cream in my coffee instead of half-and-half. I don’t know if that’s the thing to do, but I love coffee and I love cream in it.

  28. Geo
    May 6, 2011 | 3:51 am

    I am diabetic and following medical advice to eat a normal diet I became worried about my very large waist measurement in proportion to my body and all the warnings about the likelihood of a heart attack.

    Purely by my own ‘common sense’ I decided that if my body doesn’t deal well with carbohydrate I should try simply cutting them out. I have been on my diet for 11 months now, have lost the middle weight and look of normal proportions and feel much better.

    My blood results are good, cholesterol is good even though I refuse to take statins and I am never hungry. I eat protein at every meal, not more than before though, plenty of colourful veg and salad, butter, cream, cheese and enjoy my food. I won’t pretend I don’t miss crusty bread or lovely chips but I don’t want them because I know my blood sugar will shoot up within minutes if I have them.

    I have no fruit either apart from, berries and cherries which I sometimes cook and sweeten with ‘stevia’.

    I hope this helps someone as I found it very hard at first defying current medical and dietary advice but I am glad I did.

  29. Golf Simulator
    June 22, 2011 | 6:21 am

    Thanks for clearing the myths.

  30. Amy
    July 18, 2012 | 11:40 am

    I recommend you see a movie called Forks Over Knives. I really believe we need less saturated fats, less animal products in general. This movie helps explain my point very well.

  31. Emil Eidt via Facebook
    May 6, 2014 | 7:27 pm

    Fat is not the enemy. Industrial, processed food is.

  32. Kathy Koch via Facebook
    May 6, 2014 | 7:35 pm

    Yeah…lots of grass fed . Butter, whole organic raw milk and lots of coconut oil. Cholesterol is 131. Need to start my BLUE ICE fermented CLO to raise my hdl.

  33. Carol Tillyer via Facebook
    May 7, 2014 | 10:37 pm

    They’ve found another way to keep people eating the crap processed fat here in Australia. It seems they’ve discovered that bad cholesterol helps cancer travel around the body, so they’re using that to keep the mantra against saturated fats going. What amazed me though is that not once did they mention how sugar and processed foods feed cancer! Sugar is the biggest enemy, but so little is said about it compared to saturated fats.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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