Nutrition

Is saturated fat actually good for you?

Getty Images Image by: Getty Images Author: Canadian Living

Nutrition

Is saturated fat actually good for you?

Saturated fats have received a bad rap over the years. These fats, which are mainly found in animal products and dairy, as well as coconut and palm oils, are thought to increase the risk of heart disease.

Health Canada recommends limiting your intake of them, the Heart and Stroke Foundation warns they can increase your cholesterol levels, and they've literally been referred to as "bad fats" by health researchers and practitioners. But newer research is suggesting we may have judged saturated fats too quickly.

First, a 2004 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that higher saturated-fat intake was associated with less progression of coronary artery disease in women. Then, a 2010 meta-analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health found no significant connection between cardiovascular disease and saturated-fat intake. Most recently, a 2014 review from the University of Cambridge and the Harvard School of Public Health concluded there isn't enough evidence to suggest that limiting intake of saturated fat will prevent heart disease.

Also last year, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz's book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, was published. In it, she suggests the demonization of saturated fats was the product of a number of research missteps and the misguidance of a few parties with vested interests.

Meanwhile, experts have been finding that dietary cholesterol—once thought to have a direct impact on blood cholesterol—doesn't do harm to most people.

Proponents of saturated fats say the fats don't cause heart disease and obesity; in fact, they say, saturated fats increase good cholesterol and promote healthy weight (because they're satiating and high-fat diets may be lower in carbs).

But not everyone agrees. Walter Willet, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health—the very school from where much of this new research is coming—has spoken out against the new research. He argues that not enough controls were in place, such as comparing a diet high in saturated fats to appropriately healthful diets.

Neither Health Canada nor the Heart and Stroke Foundation has changed its tune about saturated fats, but there are a few things we can be sure of.

Here's what we know: 

1. Diets that prescribe indiscriminate fat reduction aren't good for you. Your body needs some fats in order to absorb certain vitamins. Plus, those foods labelled “low fat” in your grocery store are likely higher in sugar or salt to make up for any missing flavour.

2. Sugar and simple carbs play a much bigger role in heart disease than researchers previously thought. Recent research has shown that starches and sugars are a significant cause of high triglycerides, which are fats in the blood that can lead to strokes.

3. Greasy processed foods are never a good idea. That's right, step away from the chips and french fries. Whether or not you're eating saturated fats, it's best to eat natural foods (think fruit, veggies, nuts). That way, you'll avoid the trans fats, additives and preservatives found in many processed products.

4. A healthy body weight is important for your heart. That means portion control and calories are key. Eating more calories than you work off through exercise is going to weigh heavily on your heart, no matter if you're eating protein, carbs or fat.

Learn about more myths that could be affecting your heart health
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Nutrition

Is saturated fat actually good for you?

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