Jamie Sculley, ND
The Myth of Saturated Fat and Heart Health
Updated: May 7, 2020
February is American Heart Month so I want to talk about topics this month that pertain to heart health. Nutrition is a big part of naturopathic medicine and many of us may have been told that saturated fat shouldn't be part of a heart healthy diet but it may surprise you to hear that saturated fat isn't as unhealthy as you might think. Keep reading to learn about saturated fat and other fats you can include in your diet for optimal heart health.
What is saturated fat?
The term "fat" is a pretty broad term because there are many types of fats, they do different things in our bodies and some are healthier than others. Fats are made up of chains of carbon and hydrogen and saturated fat is called saturated because it's "full" of hydrogen. When the structure is full like this all the chains can line up close to each other in a very organized way and form a solid at room temperature. Think of butter or cooled bacon grease. Foods like meat, cheese, dairy and coconut oil contain saturated fat.
Why did saturated fat get a bad reputation?
Saturated fat got an unhealthy label from some flawed observations. There is a medical hypothesis called the "diet-heart hypothesis" that concluded that saturated fat raises cholesterol and therefore is bad for the heart. Cholesterol isn't inherently unhealthy and one of its most important roles is to be a building block for hormones. When it comes to heart health, a key type of cholesterol to pay attention to is the "bad" LDL cholesterol. LDL is really just a carrier for cholesterol. When it's carrying it around it's large and "fluffy" and when it isn't carrying cholesterol it's small and "dense." The smaller, denser type is more likely to become stuck in the walls of the arteries and form plaques that lead to heart disease. While studies show that saturated fat can increase LDL cholesterol and other blood markers of this disease, they don't show a link between saturated fat causing more heart disease or dying from this disease.
There are many things that need to happen for blockages to form in the arteries such as damage to the artery wall from diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes, LDL cholesterol getting stuck in the artery wall, and immune cells coming to take care of it and then forming layers that eventually form a blockage. Saturated fat is just one of many parts of this whole process and not even a direct player in the development of the disease.
Eat more healthy fats
I'm not saying to go crazy eating foods that contain saturated fat like bacon and butter, but I think it's worth knowing that they aren't as unhealthy as they seem. I still think a good approach to a healthy diet is to eat a variety of foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, proteins and low sugar. Eating a variety of fats is also important because they aren't all created equal. There are many kinds and they have different benefits.
Monounsaturated fats - Many of these types of fats are plant based such as olive, peanut and sesame oils, avocados, and nuts. These tend to have the most benefit for heart health because they lower LDL cholesterol, increase the healthy HDL cholesterol and can reduce blood pressure.
Polyunsaturated fats - This type of fat includes both omega-3 and omega-6 fats. They are called "essential fats" because our body can't make them so we need them in our diets. In general, omega-3 fats promote less inflammation than omega-6 fats. We need a dietary balance between the two types because, while some inflammation is beneficial, it can lead to chronic diseases if it gets out of control. Foods like salmon, mackerel, sardines and flaxseeds provide good sources of omega-3 fats. They are heart healthy because they reduce blood pressure, increase healthy HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation. Omega-6 fats are found in poultry, eggs, vegetable oils and nuts. They tend to increase inflammation and this is one thing that contributes to the beginning of plaque formation and heart disease. Try to increase your intake of omega-3 foods while simultaneously reducing your intake of omega-6 fats, especially vegetable oils, to balance them out.
Saturated fat has an unhealthy reputation and one that isn't completely true. While it does increase some markers related to heart disease such as cholesterol, it hasn't been shown to result in the development of heart disease or death from this disease. A healthy diet, including some saturated fat along with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can provide the most benefit for the heart by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammation.
Happy Heart Month!
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Gunnars, Kris. "Saturated Fat: Good or Bad?" 22 June 2017, Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/saturated-fat-good-or-bad.
Leaf, Alex. “Is Saturated Fat Bad for Your Health?”, 22 Oct. 2018, https://www.examine.com/nutrition/is-saturated-fat-bad-for-you/.
Robertson, Ruairi. “What Are the Benefits of Monounsaturated Fats?” Healthline, 19 Sept. 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/monounsaturated-fats.
Siri-Tarino, Patty W, et al. “Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies Evaluating the Association of Saturated Fat with Cardiovascular Disease.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 91, no. 3, 2010, pp. 535–546., doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725.