Although there’s no clear victor on either side yet, the fat wars continue to rage in the medical world. I’m not talking about some new reality TV show, like the Biggest Loser. I’m talking about the real battle in the real world, where the winner gets to make the rules that will affect your health for the rest of your life. Whether that effect is good or bad depends entirely on which side wins. And it’s looking like the tide may be quietly turning in favor of real health.
Since at least the 1980s, we’ve been told that dietary fat is bad. To avoid butter. Drink 2% milk. To buy lean hamburger, trim the fat off our steaks, and dress our salads with fat-free dressing. Fats were bad, carbs were good. Replace all that evil fat with carbs, we were told.
We’ve all seen how that worked out. Society has gotten progressively heavier, but we haven’t gotten any healthier. The rates of chronic disease have just climbed higher and higher. “No fat” slowly but surely morphed into “Unsaturated fat is good. Eat lots of olive oil!” But still we were told that to touch a steak or whole milk was to take our lives in our own hands.
That’s quietly beginning to change. In fact, recent research suggests that saturated fat like what’s found in meat and dairy is not only not bad for you, it might actually reduce the risk of stroke.
Scientific consensus isn’t the same as scientific fact
There have always been some mavericks who disagreed with the party line on fat and heart disease. A few were very vocal, which resulted in them being called quacks. But these were the loud minority. The majority of dissenters have gone quietly about their business and not rocked the boat. The anti-fat crowd generally has ties to politically and financially powerful groups like the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association. This has given them the voice to drown out any dissent and the power to make the rules.
It hasn’t, however, made them right in their views. Just because there’s a “scientific consensus” on a subject doesn’t make it a fact. It just means that one group can yell louder than the other. And it’s looking like this may be what’s happened in the fat debate. The evidence is piling up that nearly everything we’ve been told about fat is wrong, and that we might have had it right back in the bad old days of the Four Food Groups.
Of course those who shouted “fat is bad” the loudest will defend their position to the death. They have a vested interest in doing so.
However, many studies over the past few years have shown little to no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. And one of the most recent, published in Neurological Sciences last year, found that saturated fat in your diet might actually protect you from stroke—at least if you’re a man.
Fat may affect men and women differently
The study was a meta-analysis, which means it looked at the data from a bunch of other studies and put it all together. This lets researchers see patterns that might not be as obvious looking at individual studies. In this case, they sought out every study they could get their hands on that mentioned stroke and saturated fat. In the end they looked at 15 including nearly half a million people. Their conclusions should strike fear into the hearts of the “fat is bad” brigade.
Their analysis of the data found that higher saturated fat intake reduced the risk both of stroke overall and of fatal strokes. When they broke it down further, this applied to men, and to people of both sexes with a BMI of no more than 24.
This confirms what other studies have shown since as far back as the late 90s—that a diet higher in saturated fat may, at least in men, lead to less likelihood of strokes. One of the many studies that came out of the Framingham Heart Study group actually lasted for 22 years and found that men eating the most saturated fat had the least risk of stroke. Conversely, those eating the least—this was at the height of the “fat is bad!” era, after all—had the highest incidence of stroke. Interestingly, both of these studies—the Japanese study in Neurological Sciences and the 1997 Framingham study, both found that polyunsaturated fats—one of the fats we’ve been told we should be replacing saturated fat with--had no significant impact.
The 1997 study alone is pretty convincing, and the Neurological Sciences is just the most recent to find the same effect. Is this conclusive proof that saturated fat cuts your stroke risk? No. But it does add considerable weight to the argument that saturated fat isn’t the evil it’s been presented as all these years, and, when it comes from the right sources, has as much of a place in a healthy diet as any other nutrient.
What’s the takeaway? Like every other food or nutrient, the source is probably the most important aspect of the question. A juicy grass-fed steak and a stack of Oreo cookies both pack a healthy wallop of saturated fat—at least if you don’t trim the fat from the steak. Does this mean the steak is as bad for you as half a dozen Oreos?
Of course not! The Oreos are pretty empty calories, while the steak is packed not just with fat but with protein, B vitamins, and a variety of nutrients. Yet when it comes to a scientific study on fat, both would be given equal weight. The key to a health-promoting diet is eating real food, and eating it in appropriate portions. Stay tuned for the next installment of our discussion of real food—what it is, where to find it, and how to make the most nutritious choices.
And in the meantime, don’t be afraid of saturated fat.