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Is Saturated Fat Okay on Keto? The Research Says it All

Saturated Fats are classically linked to foods like red meat, eggs, and bacon. We’ve always been told that the saturated fat found in these foods increases cholesterol levels and that cholesterol causes heart disease. But is this really the case? Actually, the latest research does NOT show a relationship between saturated fat and heart disease. Current research suggests that – yes, saturated fat is completely fine to eat on the keto diet.

The first thing we have to understand is the history of this. We need to know what was going on at the time that we decided “Saturated Fat is Bad”. Around 1980 the government started making recommendations about saturated fat. [*] Back then, the research was NOT good enough to prove that saturated fat causes heart disease. And, it still isn’t…

In 1980, the topic was still in debate, but the recommendation to “avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol” was published by the USDA anyway.

We’ve come a long way since then. There is a lot of new research now that is telling a much different story about saturated fat. Unfortunately, most of the big health organizations have yet to recognize these new studies.

Do you want to be an informed, healthy individual about saturated fat?  Here is what you need to know.

1. We’re Still Operating Under Old Research

Not only old research… but highly skeptical research…

What Happened?

In 1978 Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota published a study called “The 7 Countries Study”. The goal of this study was to find a cause for the growing heart disease epidemic. The study cost millions of dollars to fund and over 20 years to publish. After it was completed, it made the cover of Time Magazine. [*]

Ancel Keys Time Magazine Cover Saturated Fat

One of the major findings was that the risk of heart disease was directly related to higher levels of cholesterol in the blood (total cholesterol). [*]The study went on to say that the reason for an increase in heart disease was directly related to increased consumption of saturated fat.

What was the Outcome?

Two years later, in 1980 the USDA nutritional guidelines were formed – fueled by a political and emotional bias against fat. The recommendation was to “Avoid Too Much Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol.”

Fast forward 20 years and we are sitting in the middle of the biggest obesity crisis the world has ever seen. Oh, and we still haven’t fixed heart disease. Whoops!

Why is it Wrong?

Ancel’s study was based on surveys of people recording what they ate. These are called epidemiology studies. They aren’t accurate. They’re different from randomized controlled trials where researchers can actually prove that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

In fact, some researchers have even said that you can pretty much prove that all foods increase the chance of death by querying the data in a certain way. It’s way too hard to actually ensure someone ate what they said they did.

The Research was Incomplete and the Data was Manipulated

There have been many criticisms of the 7 Countries Study. “Sugar: The bitter truth” video went viral in 2009 and Dr. Robert Lustig argued that the study was incomplete[*]…amongst having other issues such as omitting many countries that would have been favorable to saturated fat. [*]

Going further – In 2015, a review study was done to investigate why we even decided to demonize saturated fat in the first place. Researchers found that things didn’t add up. The study is titled “Evidence from randomized controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983: a systematic review and meta-analysis” [*]

Looking back on the “7 Countries Study”, we decided to throw saturated fat out the window based on flawed/unfinished research. Researchers even testified that to Congress. [1]

Philip Handler’s Testimony to Congress in 1980 was Shaky

Let’s look at what the chairperson of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, had to say to Congress in 1980.

“Mr. Chairman, when these hearings have concluded, your committee may well find itself confronted by a dilemma. On the one hand, you may conclude, as some have, that: ’Well, there still remains a thinly linked, if questionable, chain of observations that connects dietary cholesterol to serum (blood) cholesterol to vascular disease. However tenuous (weak) that linkage, however disappointing the various intervention trials (controlled studies), it still seems prudent to propose to the American public that we not only maintain reasonable weights for our height, body structure and age, but also reduce dietary fat intakes significantly, and keep cholesterol intake to a minimum.” [*] – Dr. Philip Handler

To sum that up

There was conflicting research and the controlled trials have not proven saturated fat causes an increased risk of heart disease or death. But, maybe it’s still a good idea to recommend that everybody reduce saturated fat and cholesterol anyway. …What!?

In conclusion, Dr. Handler adds…

“Mr. Chairman, resolution of this dilemma turns on a value judgment. The dilemma so posed is not a scientific question; it is a question of ethics, morals, politics. Those who argue either position strongly are expressing their values; they are not making scientific judgments.” Dr. Philip Handler

To sum that up

People who argue the case of saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t doing so based on facts. [*]

But, the fat demonization happened anyway…

In the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of new research that points to saturated fat NOT being related to heart disease. Many of these studies have been done as randomized controlled trials – the gold standard for reliable research. [*] [*]

2. Current Research Supports Saturated Fat

To explore the latest state of saturated fat, I would highly encourage you to listen to the debate between Chris Kresser and Dr. Joel Kahn on Joe Rogan’s podcast (September 27, 2018). Saturated fat was discussed in the context of veganism vs eating meat. Chris addressed the saturated fat dilemma with many of the latest studies.

[Show Notes for Kresser/Kahn Debate]

 

Kresser/Kahn Debate – Arguments Made

  • Chris Kresser’s Argument – The current research shows no correlation to saturated fats causing increased rates of heart disease or mortality.
  • Dr. Joel Kahn’s Argument – In order for Chris to be right, every major health organization (American Heart Assoc, American Diabetes Assoc, World Health Organization, etc) has to have gotten saturated fats all wrong over the last 20–30 years. This is highly unlikely.

One of the studies discussed during the debate was an exhaustive review of multiple studies that included more than 600,000 participants. The study concluded that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats” [*]

The important take away here is that this review study gathered the data from 66 OTHER studies and combined the results. 27 of those studies were randomized controlled trials. Like I said above, these types of studies are the gold standard. So, what I am saying here is that this is a REALLY good study.

Another meta-analysis study found health improvements in obese patients eating low carb diets (generally higher in saturated fats). The data was taken from 17 controlled trials studies and included over 1,000 people. [*]

3. Keto Helps the Body to Use Saturated Fat

Saturated Fatty Acid Molecule
Saturated Fatty Acid Structure

 

Let’s look at saturated fat in the context of keto. Is there anything different here?

There IS actually. When we cut carbs on keto the diet, our bodies PREFER burning saturated fat. You don’t find it lying around unused like in high carb diets. Interestingly, after someone is fat adapted on keto – they tend to burn through saturated fat much quicker. It doesn’t build up in the blood like you would think. [3]

Dr. Phinney and Dr. Volek discuss this at length in the “Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate living.” They’ve done significant research on how the body responds to dietary saturated fats while on keto.

I think this point summarizes their case very well.

“The strongest correlation between a major dietary nutrient and blood levels of saturated fat is with dietary carbohydrate – not with saturated fat intake! On average, the more carbohydrate you eat, the higher the content of saturated fats in your blood.” [2]

A meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials indicated that carbohydrates worsened the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol way more than saturated fat (or any type of fat). [*]

Did you know that coconut oil is 83%  saturated fat? It’s packed with the stuff.[*] If Coconut oil is so bad, why are there so many studies touting all of its health benefits? Coconut oil has been known to raise total cholesterol levels. But guess what? All that lauric acid it contains helps to greatly improve the HDL ratio. That’s way more important than total cholesterol levels.

Conclusion

  1. We are still basing food guidelines on research from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. These studies are inaccurate and unreliable.
  2. The latest research shows NO correlation with saturated fats and heart disease. We have randomized controlled trials now showing solid evidence.
  3. Keto diets have been shown to be especially helpful for burning saturated fat and improving cholesterol HDL ratios.

Offline Sources

[1] Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living Chapter 3

[2] Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living Introduction

[3] Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living Chapter 4

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