Is Saturated Fat Good For Heart Health

I recently spent some time in the south of France, staying with a family there, and had the opportunity to observe the French diet first-hand. As could be expected, it’s a diet that would make your average, politically correct eater in North America cringe — everything was fried in duck fat. And not just a little bit of duck fat either. A lot of duck fat.

Duck fat was the major source of fat in their diet, so picture all the different places you use fats or oil and imagine replacing it with duck fat and then add about twice as much and you’re starting to get the picture.

And, of course, none of them were obese. They all had radiant skin, were energetic and loving life. Obviously I wasn’t running any medical tests on them, but none of the obvious markers of heart disease were there. Before you start talking to me about the benefits of red wine, know this — no one in the family drinks.

This got me thinking about the “French Paradox”; the idea that, despite all the saturated fat the French eat, they have much lower heart disease rates than North Americans. Anyone who’s read my stuff before knows how I feel about the French Paradox — it doesn’t exist. The French don’t get heart disease from their saturated fat intake because saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease.

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the truth.

To illustrate my point, here’s a study from the October issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The Japanese study looked at 58,000 adults in Japan over the course of 14 years period, assessing the relationship between their saturated fat intake and risk death from different cardiovascular diseases.

And the results, quoting from Dr. John Briffa, showed that those eating more saturated fat were:

“At NO increased risk of death due to heart attack, heart failure or cardiac arrest.

At NO increased risk of death due to subarachnoid haemorrhage.

At REDUCED risk of death due to intraparenchymal haemorrhage (52 per cent reduced risk).

At REDUCED risk of death due to ischaemic stroke (42 per cent reduced risk).

At REDUCED risk of death due to stroke (all types of stroke lumped together) (31 per cent reduced risk).

And, wait for it…

Higher intakes of saturated fat were found to be associated with a REDUCED RISK OF DEATH FROM CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE (18 per cent reduced risk).”

The people who had the lowest incidence of stroke mortality were the ones eating between 18 and 40g of saturated fat per day. Reducing saturated fat intake to below 18g increased risk of stroke by almost 20 per cent. And intakes of less than 11g of saturated fat per day increased risk by almost 66 per cent.

Not only this, but the population study also observed that lowering levels of saturated fat by raising levels of polyunsaturated fats (from vegetable oils) was significantly positively associated with stroke mortality. Think about that the next time you’re buying corn oil instead of lard.

If you’re shocked by these results, you probably haven’t been paying attention to studies on the subject of late (or this blog. I tend to go on about this subject quite a bit). Three major reviews of the literature over the last few years have found no evidence that demonstrates saturated fat causes heart disease. None.

Now mind you, the current study is an epidemiological study, meaning they are simply making observations of a particular population. This can’t be taken as proof. To really prove that saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease you’d have to have people closed up in a lab eating a controlled diet of saturated fat for their entire lives to see if they die of a heart attack. Out in the population at large there are many confounding factors that can interfere with the results, even though the researchers do their best to control for these variables (like pollution, lack of exercise, stress, etc.). BUT, the epidemiological studies can be used to make hypotheses. In other words, they’re good for giving us our best guess.

Since so much of the evidence is pointing to saturated fat NOT being associated with heart disease, I think this is our best guess. Too bad so many doctors, dietitians and nutritionists don’t agree and encourage lowering saturated fat in the diet in favor of polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

As for me, I’m getting myself some duck fat.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

Editor’s  Review:

I linked this study which indeed, experimentally and not just from observation, finds that a fatty meal does indeed impair arterial function. However, exercise seems to reverse this effect entirely. It is quite possible the French walk a lot more than at least Americans do. I can’t speak for Canadians. This walking probably reverses any ill effects from the consumption of saturated fat. The Masai also do the equivalent of 12 miles of walking per day, which reverses the damage from the amount of saturated fat they eat. If this is true, then being eating a lot of saturated fat, while being sedentary, can lead to heart disease.

I have also heard that the French don’t eat large portions of food. Obesity is also growing in France as well. It also must be stated that between 18 and 40 grams is not that much saturated fat. One juicy steak can easily contain over 60 grams of it. Sally Fallon of the Weston Price Foundation advocates eating far more than this. By the way, I did see a YouTube video of her and she certainly is not a good advertisement for eating fat, and losing fat, since she clearly is not terribly thin. If it is so harmful not to consume saturated fat, then why many studies show that Vegetarians and Vegans have lower rates of obesity, cancer, as well as heart disease? This was stated in the position of the American Dietetic Association published in July 2009. They cited many studies which indicate that Vegetarians and Vegans have lower rates of heart disease, as well as cancer. Of course Vegetarians and Vegans consume less saturated fat than your average omnivore does. If you don’t have time to answer this, maybe another reader can. This doesn’t have to be answered.