One of the biggest areas of dietary confusion today is whether saturated fat is bad for us or not. For the most part, conventional medical thought remains firmly in the “saturated fat is bad for you” corner, while a growing number of people feel that not only is the jury still out on saturated fat intake, it may even have health benefits.
One of the primary reasons we are told to lower our saturated fat intake is to lower heart disease risk. As Jim and I have already discussed in several Total Health Breakthroughs articles, studies looking at the effects of low carb diets are a big reason the effects of saturated fats are being questioned; that’s because numerous studies have found that low carb diets lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing HDL — despite being higher than is conventionally recommended for saturated fat intake. [1,2]
These changes in lipid profiles lower the risk of heart disease, not raise it.
As if these findings aren’t reason enough to prove that conventional medicine may be wrong about saturated fat, another study out of Harvard has really raised some questions. This study looked at postmenopausal women who had previously eaten low fat diets and who, despite that fact, had plaque build-up in their arteries. But the same study found that when the women ate diets that were higher in saturated fat, the progression of arterial plaque stopped. 
Interestingly, the one factor that was associated with progression of artery clogging plaque was a higher intake of carbohydrates, as is typically eaten on a low fat diet.
Other findings that are shedding more light on the effects of saturated fats stem from research that is being conducted on the different types of fatty acid chains like lauric acid, myristic acid, stearic acid, and butyric acid, which together make up the whole category of saturated fats.
These fatty acids are all saturated, but they differ in composition and function depending on the length of their carbon chains. If you haven’t heard much about them yet, you will, because the research on them is hot and heavy.
Here are some examples of the research findings:
Stearic fatty acids are composed of 18 carbon atoms and are commonly found in cocoa butter and fatty meats, like beef. Quite surprisingly, research has revealed that stearic acid doesn’t raise cholesterol levels as much as myristic acid found in dairy foods; and palmitic acid from palm oil actually lowers cholesterol. 
Lauric acid, a 12-carbon chain, is commonly found in coconut oil, palm oil and breast milk. It is gaining attention because it raises healthy HDL cholesterol but not serum triglycerides and lipoprotein(a) concentrations (risk factors for heart disease). These findings further shatter the notion that saturated fats as a whole increase heart disease risk.
In considering whether we should consume saturated fats or not, heart disease should not be our only consideration. Higher saturated fat intake from full fat dairy products has been found to decrease a woman’s risk of being infertile, while eating low fat dairy foods, which most people do to lower their heart disease risk, was found to increase risk of being infertile. 
And while I see many headlines and articles stating that saturated fat intake in general is associated with an increased risk of cancer, many people feel that some of the risk could be from other factors like heterocyclic amines (HCAs) produced from over-cooked meats or the hormones that are sometimes injected into commercial livestock and poultry.
In fact, while it is not yet definitive, it looks like butyric acid, one source of which is butter (a saturated fat), may play a role in preventing cancer by stopping the development of cancer cells. [6,7]
As more research accumulates, there is no doubt the messages to consumers about saturated fats will be modified. In the meantime, our position at LMI remains the same: limit carbohydrates and center the diet on plant foods and organic proteins. And we probably shouldn’t be afraid to include some saturated fats from butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil, and organic meats and dairy (as tolerated).
1. Mente A, et al. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(7):659-669.
2. Hession M, et al. Obes Rev. 2008 Aug 11.
3. Mozaffarian D, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. Vol. 80, No.5,1175-1184; 2004.
4. German JB and Dillard CJ. Am J Clin Nutr. Sept 2004; 80(3):550-59.
5. Chavarro JE, et al. Human Reproduction. Feb 28, 2007; doi:10.1093/humrep/dem019.
7. German JB. Nutr Bull. 1999;24:293-9
Laura B. LaValle, RD, LD is presently the director of dietetics nutrition at LaValle Metabolic Institute. Laura and her husband, Jim LaValle, R.Ph, CCN, ND have developed the powerful and life-changing Metabolic Code Diet – containing step-by-step, easy to follow recommendations for harnessing optimal metabolic energy and turning your body’s chemical make up into a fat-burning furnace. To learn more click here.