Saturated Fat Is Good For You?

First of all, keep in mind that there will always be articles like this in the popular press because “that’s what people want to hear. They like believing they can keep eating red meat and other saturated-fat-rich foods without clogging their arteries or promoting cancer,” points out Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist at Pritikin.

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Is Saturated Fat really bad for you? That's what a recent article said.

What people want to hear is what magazines and other media want to write about because these headlines sell. That’s the bottom line.

Saturated fat is good for you?

In the current “meat-is-good-for-you” spin, media writers argue that while foods high in saturated fat like red meat raise bad LDL cholesterol levels, they also raise good HDL cholesterol levels, which compensates for some of the damage the LDL is doing to our arteries.

Function of HDL

What writers do not explain is that the function of HDL is impaired on a high-saturated-fat diet, and that more and more research is finding that what our HDL is doing may be far more important than our total amount of HDL.

In research1 on men in a three-week program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, for example, blood tests showed that on entry the men (typical high-fat American-style eaters) had normal amounts of HDL, but the HDL tended to be pro-inflammatory. That’s not good. Pro-inflammatory HDL promotes plaque build-up in the arteries.

But after three weeks at Pritikin, exit blood tests showed the HDL had been converted from having pro-inflammatory qualities to having anti-inflammatory qualities despite the fact that total levels of HDL had on average gone down a little. Anti-inflammatory HDL is beneficial because it does a good job of removing LDL from the arterial system.

Pay attention to the quality of HDL, not the quantity, lead author Dr. Christian K Roberts and colleagues at UCLA concluded. “The function of HDL may be more important than the steady-state plasma [blood] levels.”

The Masai

Another “saturated-fat-is-okay” argument currently making the social media circuit is that a tribe in Africa, the Masai, ate a daily diet full of blood and whole milk but, surprisingly, had low levels of LDL and total cholesterol.

Once again, media writers are leaving out a very important fact: “Autopsy studies showed that the Masai people had extensive atherosclerosis,” reports Dr. Jay Kenney, “so the scientific community lost interest in this exception” (and the media community should have, too).

So why all the atherosclerosis in the Masai who were thin, active, didn’t smoke, or add salt to their food?

“Perhaps,” suggests Dr. Kenney, “atherosclerosis is more a postprandial [after mealtime] phenomenon than previously believed.” That’s what more and more data are suggesting.

Just One High-In-Fat Meal…

Right after a high-fat meal, scientists now know that increased production of chemicals like remnant chylomicron particles can wedge their way into artery walls and may be as damaging as LDL cholesterol.

After each high-fat meal, there’s also an increase in Clotting Factor VII, which can increase the likelihood of plaque rupture.

Research2 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points to another possible mechanism. Each time a high-fat meal is eaten, it may enhance the absorption of bacterial endotoxins from the gut, and these toxins may trigger an increased release of inflammatory substances in the blood and arteries.

The good news: Healthy nutrition and regular exercise has been documented to quell inflammation. Research, for example, on women following the Pritikin Program showed a 45% reduction in inflammation-producing C-reactive protein, and in just two weeks.3

Saturated Fats – The Basic (and Irrefutable) Facts

Large amounts of saturated fatty acids and/or trans fatty acids in a fat will make it solid at room temperature. All fats that are solid at room temperature will raise blood levels of total cholesterol and particularly the “bad” LDL cholesterol and nonHDL cholesterol levels.

Examples of foods rich in saturated fat are foods from animal origin, such as meat, lard, butter, chicken fat, cheese, whole milk, and other full-fat dairy products. Four major plant sources of saturated fat are coconut, palm kernel oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter (found in chocolate).

Of the saturated fatty acids, three are most involved in raising serum cholesterol levels and promoting atherosclerosis. These are lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids.

Proportionally, cocoa butter and chocolate have more stearic acid, which is the only common saturated fatty acid that does not raise blood cholesterol. Of course, chocolate also contains a fair amount of palmitic acid that does raise blood cholesterol and promote heart disease, so it is best to consume cocoa powder rather than chocolate.

Bottom Line

Be wary of the headlines in the popular press. All too often, they tell you what you want to hear, not what the preponderance of scientific data say. “In hundreds of carefully controlled studies, saturated fat – and trans fat and cholesterol – added to the diet increase LDL cholesterol. The higher our LDL levels, the more plaque – and more heart attacks – we’re likely to have,” sums up Dr. Kenney.

“The reverse is true, too. Decreasing LDL levels, particularly through lifestyle changes like the Pritikin Eating Plan, is the best thing we can do to lower our risk of heart attack.”


1Journal of Applied Physiology, 2006; 101: 1727.
2American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007; 86: 1286.
3Metabolism, 2004; 53: 377.

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