Several years back I started writing about saturated fat here on Darwinian-Medicine.com. In the time that has passed since then, I’ve published several articles about saturated fat as it relates to human nutrition and health. The reason why I’ve devoted quite a bit of time to this issue is that I’m concerned about the fact that it’s commonly believed within evolutionary health and low-carb communities that saturated fat is harmless. Not only that, but many seem to think that it’s healthy to take in a lot of lipids of the saturated kind. As I see it, these beliefs are not scientifically sound. I would go as far as to say that the best available scientific evidence clearly suggests that they are erroneous.
The internet is filled with information about diet and health, much of which is not scientifically sound; hence, it’s easy to be misled
One upon a time, I too was a fan of saturated fat. I’d come to believe from reading about low-carbohydrate nutrition and Paleo diets online that the nutritional establishment is wrong about saturated fat and that I should embrace butter, coconut oil, cheese, ghee, bacon, and other foods with a similar nutritional make-up. For quite some time, I let that notion guide my eating behavior. After a while, however, I gradually began to realise that I’d been led astray. Not only did I notice that the very fatty diet I was eating didn’t agree with my body, but as I started digging into the scientific research on saturated fat, I found that things didn’t add up, in the sense that the fatty ideas I’d seen promoted by popular fitness bloggers and authors were not rooted in good science. In the time that has passed since then, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s unhealthy to regularly consume substantial quantities of the aforementioned types of foods.
That being said, as I’ve pointed out in my earlier articles on this topic, not all saturated fatty acids are equally problematic. Short-chain saturated fatty acids such as lauric acid, the dominant fatty acid in coconuts, for example, differ from saturated fatty acids with a longer chain length. Moreover, I obviously recognize that saturated fat is a natural part of many healthy foods. No truly healthy diet is devoid of fats of the saturated kind. The goal, as I see it, is not to completely avoid saturated fats, but rather to structure one’s diet so that it contains a healthy balance of the different types of fats that are found in the foods we eat. That is “easily” achieved by structuring one’s diet according to Darwinian nutrition principles.
The idea that diets rich in saturated fat agree with the human biology lacks evolutionary support
It’s somewhat strange that saturated fat is a darling of the evolutionary health community, seeing as high-fat dairy foods and fatty meats from domesticated animals – the dominant sources of saturated fat in the contemporary human diet – were not a part of ancient human diets. It’s a myth that hunter-gatherers take in large quantities of saturated fat on a regular basis. Their primary source of fat is wild game meat, which contains much less saturated fat than most of the meats that line the shelves of modern supermarkets. They obviously consume the fattest parts of the animals they manage to track down and kill; however, seeing as wild animals tend to be fairly lean and contain less saturated fatty acids in their tissues than domesticated animals, hunter-gatherers’ intake of saturated fat remains modest.
This is something that a lot of ancestral eaters don’t seem to recognize. Many seem to operate under the belief that Paleolithic humans gorged on saturated fat, although a simple examination of the nutritional characteristics of the foods that hunter-gatherers eat would immediately falsify such a notion. Hunter-gatherers who consume a lot of animal source foods will obviously take in “a fair amount” of saturated fat, simply because their diet is so rich in animal products; however, this intake will be offset by the fairly high intake of unsaturated fatty acids. This natural fatty acid balance on which the human genome evolved though millions of years is lost when high-fat dairy foods, highly processed foods, and/or fatty meats from domesticated animals are brought into the mix.
The science is clear: It’s not unproblematic to consume a lot of saturated fat
Given that it’s an evolutionarily novel behavior for a human being to take in large quantities of saturated fatty acids via the consumption of foods such as sausages, bacon, cheese, cream, butter, and the like, it’s not surprising that a significant body of evidence indicates that such a behavior is unhealthful. Some recent studies, including one frequently cited meta-analysis of cohort studies, have indeed failed to detect an association between the consumption of saturated fat and certain health outcomes (which isn’t that surprising, seeing as it’s difficult to elucidate how alterations in a single dietary variable such as saturated fat intake affect our health); however, the strength and magnitude of this research fade in comparison to that of all of the research that indicates that saturated fat is guilty of many of the crimes the nutritional establishment has accused it of.
The difference between the scientific literature and the non-scientific literature (e.g., fitness blogs) in this area is striking. Whereas most (not all) scientists operate under the belief that saturated fat is something most people would benefit from taking in less of, many bloggers and non-scientific authors argue that we could benefit from bringing more saturated lipids into our diets.
In today’s article, I’m not going to revisit the research on this matter. What I thought I’d do instead is to list the most recent articles about saturated fat that I’ve put up here on the site. In those articles, which are listed below according to publication date (newest to oldest), I talk at length about the downside of regularly consuming foods that are very high in saturated fatty acids.
- The War on Fat: Is it Unhealthy to Eat Meat?
- New Research Strengthens the Case Against Saturated Fat
- The Evidence the «Saturated Fat is Harmless» Crowd Overlooks
- What We Can Learn From the Saturated Fat Controversy
- Saturated Fat: It’s (Still) Not Harmless
- How Did the Paleo Diet Turn Into a Very Fatty Diet?
- Saturated Fat: The Madness Has to Stop
- Saturated Fat: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not as Harmless as the Low-Carb Movement Claims
- Don’t Believe the Hype: Eating a Lot of Butter, Bacon, and Other Fatty Foods Won’t Make You Healthy
The evolution of the low-carb community: What’s going on with respects to saturated fat?
When I first started exploring the dark side of saturated fat here on the site, my impression was that very few people within the evolutionary health community held a similar position as me. Most seemed to operate under the belief that mainstream nutritionists were dull-witted and had completely missed the mark when it comes to saturated fat. Today, many evolutionary eaters probably still consider this to be the case; however, I do feel that things have changed a bit. It might be that I’m just imagining it, but I do have the impression that more and more people are now realising that saturated fat is not as innocent as many online “health experts” have long claimed it is. In other words, I get the impression that the gap between the low-carb community and the mainstream nutritional community has become somewhat smaller, at least with respects to matters related to saturated lipids. The gap is still huge, but it’s perhaps a little smaller than it once was.
My writing obviously wasn’t solely responsible for bringing about this purported change; however, I do hope and think it has contributed somewhat. My hope is that, over time, more people discover and objectively examine the science on this matter. Not because I feel a deep desire to “crush” saturated fat, but rather because I think a lot of people are suffering, health wise, because they’ve been misled into thinking that it’s not only safe, but healthy, to regularly consume foods rich in saturated lipids.